In advance of the feverishly-anticipated release of her new album, Middle Cyclone , Neko Case flew into Toronto in late January for a quick promotional blitz. A somewhat tired-looking but still animated and eloquent Case sat down with Exclaim! for the following interview.
So you're being worked hard on the promotional rounds?
Neko Case: Yes, I'm in harness right now. Busy, but I'm having a really good time. Everyone has been pretty great.
Any sense of how Middle Cyclone is being received yet?
Not really. So few people have it at this point. I'm hoping it will go well [laughs].
Does making records get easier as you go along?
No, it gets harder every single time. Your ability to perceive problems is greater. And your capacity to have ideas explode into a million ideas on you gets greater. You don't want to leave any leads unexplored. You don't want to let things go. It becomes a rather precious exercise. Sometimes it can be really tedious, and sometimes you're just trying on every outfit.
I get the sense you did explore leads here. To me, it is quite adventurous, and sometimes off the wall, other times conventional. You pleased with the results in that sense?
I think so. I don't think there was anything I didn't get to look into or finish. So I feel good about it.
Feel you're getting better as a problem-solver? In our last interview, you were talking about how much you were learning from Darryl Neudorf [co-producer] on the technical production side.
I'm a better problem solver than I was but my ability to recognize problems is much greater, so there seems to be more of them. But it is just me being able to spot them. It's a little frustrating on one hand, but you try to be positive about that and just realize you can use it. It is a heavier chain.
The album was recorded in four different locales, I see.
Most of it was recorded in Tucson, as far as bed tracks go, but I have to change it up or else I get really batty. I have to go to different places, break it up with a tour, go home for a while, go to Vermont. There was some remote recording too. Kelly [Hogan] did some stuff by herself with Nora [O'Connor] in Chicago, then we did some vocals in Brooklyn, then some recording here in Toronto as well.
A lot of friends do cameos. Was that a matter of coincidence, working with whoever happened to be around?
Yes, it's about catching them here and there. That is how I got Carolyn [Mark], Sarah [Harmer] and Matt Ward.
Does that help keep it fun and fresh?
Very much so. It's very nice to have people come in and break up the monotony. Just renew your sense of joie de vivre when you're working on something.
The fact that you've worked and toured so long with your core cast of characters, does that make it easier?
For the first time I have a full-time band now, now that we've added Barry Mirochnik on drums. It is an actual permanent unit. So this is the first record where we've rehearsed a lot of the songs before we ever went into the studio. We were able to give them full rehearsal, played them at some shows, stretched them out to see what we could do with them. That was really helpful. I felt much more grounded when I was going in to do the bed tracks.
Was it a finite period of time to write these songs?
Some go back a ways. I've had "Magpie To The Morning" forever. It was originally written for a movie and that didn't work out, so I just changed most of the lyrics for myself. "Pharoahs" I wrote with the Sadies quite a while ago.
You've co-written a lot with the Sadies. How does that process work?
I do all the lyrics by myself. Whenever I am working with somebody else, it is always about the music. It is so much fun with those guys. So nice to feel like you are part of a band, playing music in a room, rather than by yourself, going "does that chord sound good?" I don't know. I play tenor guitar, so I don't even have any bass notes to put in there, know what I mean? And there's something about being able to step back and listen to somebody else play something you just wrote together, to be able to tell if you want to change something or which way you want it to go. It is very freeing, so I prefer working with other people to working by myself, I have found. It's lonely! It's not very bands-y or fun. That's what I always liked about being in a band, that sense of camaraderie, laughing and what not.
So this really feels like a band now?
Very much so.
Last time you told me you usually find connecting themes halfway through. You don't set out with a mandate.
It is still that way
And what connecting themes are you finding here?
I had a real obsession with tornadoes, obviously. And quite literally. And nature. Human tininess next to nature I'm pretty fascinated with, in a celebrating it kind of way. Don't lose your instincts.
There are elements of these themes in previous your work isn't there?
Yes there is.
The bio refers to these being love songs, but in an unconventional way. Can you elaborate on that?
They're not really about man/woman relationships. I don't really like to write from a man or woman's perspective, specifically. Sometimes I do, if it is a certain character in a story. If it is a person in the story telling the story, I like to make it a little more ambiguous. That way whoever listens to it has a better chance of relating to it. They can make the song about themselves and I don't like to adhere to a certain time and place either. One song is rather about breaking up with your hometown, rather than breaking up with your date.
They can be equally traumatic can't they?
Yes. Equally hard. I'm still not over it, all these years later!
Which hometown are you referring to?
It was about breaking up with Seattle
You still seem rather nomadic.
Well, I am nomadic, but I do have a permanent home. I bought a farm in Vermont. I'm renovating it, so it'll take me a while to move in, but I'll be there permanently by the end of the year. I like it rural.
What is the attraction to this side of the continent now?
I lived in Vermont when I was a little kid, and I always loved it. I loved the people, and the miniature scale forests. I love the forests of the west too. That's where I grew up, and in my mental alphabet, a tree looks like a Douglas fir, but I really love deciduous trees, the mix of the deciduous and like the balsam fir and coniferous trees. There's just something about the way the forest there smells and looks. it is very colourful and on a smaller scale. There's a lot more evident wildlife to me too, and I like that very much.
So you have a spread with deer?
Oh yes. I see deer every day at my house, every single day. We have a pond, we being me and my dogs. Isn't that sad! They're on the mortgage with me! There's a pond, so a lot of wildlife comes down to drink there. A lot of baby ducks in the spring. All different kinds, I love it. I just can't get enough of just watching what happens. There are a lot of obvious birdnests everywhere. You watch them build them, then the eggs, then you see the little babies pop up their heads. It is so exciting! Those are the things that make me really excited about the world. I just want to be nearer to that. I want more of that in my life.
Thinking of a home studio there?
No. I'll do remote recordings there and stuff, but I don't want to have a full-time studio. It's a lot of work, a lot of maintenance, costs a lot of money to do. Plus I don't want to record in one place all the time. I like to support my friends who have supported me all this time. I'd rather still move it around.
Looking back to Fox Confessor and how well it did, that must have been gratifying?
Yes it was, but it was also very hard work, all the touring for that record. It took a long time. I was very sick at the beginning of it too. That was very difficult, so I'm hoping to start on a much healthier foot this time.
Significant commercial success for that came from something very adventurous. Did you see that as a vote of confidence?
I guess I don't feel that it is that adventurous. It is kind of what I can do, the limits of what I can do. I never expected it to be anything that people would play on the radio to begin with. I'm just happy it did what it did.
It does seem that your horizons are expanding with every record, whereas a lot of artists seem to shrink their horizons.
That is pretty much the nicest compliment anyone can give you. That you have shown some kind of marked growth in what you are making. If I can maintain that kind of respect from people I am thrilled. That is what I want from myself, but it is really hard to be able to tell if you have done that yourself. You are so close to what you are doing, it's hard to see the forest from the trees, as they say.
Will you be touring madly behind this?
Oh yes, that's our job. We like it. For me, the putting out the record part is great, but the touring part is what I feel is more my area of expertise.
I notice now you are often doing soft-seat theatres, as opposed to loud clubs and bars. Is that pleasing.
Yes, it is gratifying, but it is also difficult to get used to. A lot of times, people are very quiet as you are playing those places. I'm used to playing in bars, so it is easy to read that as people aren't interested in what you're doing, when really they are just being respectful. It is hard to get around that psychology, but I am getting better at it. I'm not as scared of it.
Is the plus side the fact that some of the subtleties of your sound come across more?
I think so. We are not required to be as loud, so I do think we sound better. It is a lot easier for our sound engineer when we don't have to fight. At the same time, I think it is a valuable thing for people to be able to go see a show in their hometown and feel like they can talk to the people they are with at the show. It is their night too. They are having a good time, they are forming relationships with people, and they are doing something unique to where they live. That is not a very common thing anymore. Communities are very strip mall-y, there are so many chains. It is nice to be able to feel you are doing something unique, so I want them to not feel as if they have to sit there wanting to go to the bathroom for two hours and keeping their mouth shut with tape. I want them to feel they can talk to their date or their sister or whoever they are bringing to the show.
I imagine when you first started seeing bands, it was in the clubs, not the concert theatres or stadiums?
Absolutely, and it was a very important social part of my life. It was mostly social. I formed so many important relationships in that kind of atmosphere, and I saw so much music that inspired me. It happened simultaneously, which is why I think I attach so much importance to music and what it does for you.
Enjoy the festival experience?
Not as much. I'm getting better. I'm a person who likes to perform in the dark. I don't do well in the sun, and festivals can be daunting. They're very large, and there are places we do better than others. In Canada I always love the festival experience. In the States it is always completely different. It's more of an expensive free for all, whereas in Canada it feels more community, more music lover-y. In the States we are not the good-time boogie-rock band people are expecting that you should be when you're outside in the sun getting wasted. Don't get me wrong. We still have good times at festivals, but I don't feel as confident at them as I'd like to. Unless it's the Calgary Folk festival or something, and you feel like you're wearing a beer hat the whole time, woohoo. Everyone there to party and hang out all night.
Never adapt your set to suit that festival environment?
No, that's not something I'd ever be comfortable doing. If people came to see us, they wouldn't expect us to do "Rockin Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" or something! It just doesn't feel natural.
In terms of covers, it's an interesting coincidence that both covers on Middle Cyclone, "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth" and "Don't Forget Me," come from 1974 isn't it?
Yes, isn't that weird? I didn't realize that until we had to look up the publishing on it. We were like "wow, that's weird." A total accident.
I didn't know you were a Sparks fan. I'm one from way back.
Yes I love Sparks. I love Ron Mael's lyrics. I like to go online and read them. He is pretty out there, but he's also really ballsy, especially for the time.
Curious about his reaction to the cover?
I can't imagine they've heard it. Curious and/or scared of their reaction. They might be completely offended, but they seem like totally amiable people, so maybe not. I've never met them, but I've seen them play. They were so good. I didn't get to see them on their multi-night album recreation series. Only they could pull that off, and only in England I think. I think Americans would go, "what the fuck'?" I'm glad they are so appreciated there.
How did you find the Nilsson song? Is it a favourite from way back?
Yes it was. The only reason I waited so long to do it was that I couldn't figure out how to do it and not seem like it was just a really crappy version of pretending to be Harry Nilsson. He is such a great singer and piano player and songwriter and then there's an orchestra in the background. It couldn't be any more heartbreaking than it is, so I thought we'd go at it from a more rustic perspective and do it with a 21 piano salute, which worked. And then Garth Hudson is the ringer, thank goodness. I thought he might appreciate that. It is more collage-y with duct tape than his super golden gilded version with the beautiful orchestra.
I read you went to Craigslist to get free pianos?
Yes I did. It started with one, then I saw there were so many and it seemed funny. Let's see how many pianos I can get. Free pianos are never free. You have to move them and tune them. We had eight pianos and six were tuneful. It worked out and it was super-fun.
That is bordering on performance art.
What happened to the pianos?
They are still there, covered with tarps. It's very cold in Vermont at the moment and birds like to poop on them in the barn. I have to put their coats on. I'll donate them to people if they want them, but there are so many free pianos out there. Seems people in New England are all like "get this piano out of my house. It has been here since 1690!" Maybe if there are people who have wanted a piano but can't afford delivery, I could do that for them. Might be a nice thing to do. They're beautiful pianos, old. Cheaply made for their time, but they have so much character. They sound really beautiful.
Then you go from that to using Steve Berlin on keyboards?
He used a MIDI-sax, but it is like a children's toy from the '80s. That's pretty much as technical as we got. At one point there was a '70s Yamaha organ used on something. Other than that, it's all pretty analog-y, and traditional instrumentation.
Steve has a passion for analog doesn't he?
Yes and he loves the MIDI-sax. He brought it in, and said "don't be scared." I went OK I trust you, and sure enough it's fantastic.
Ever worked with Steve before?
No. We'd been crossing paths for years, at festivals here and there, and saying we should do something together. This was the time it lined up, thank goodness.
Any other players here that you haven't worked with before?
Kurt Easley from the Lilys, it's his first appearance on a record. Matt Ward. I've played on his records before and I was really excited to get him to come in. And Sarah Harmer was a great coup for me. She and I are never in the same place at the same time, but it worked out. We had the best fun. She's so lovely.
And Carl Newman again?
Yes, Carl is singing on a few tracks. New Pornographers on pianos, there are a lot of people on the record. Our friend Lucy Wainwright Roche played on a bunch of songs and sings. I'm so in love with Lucy - she's wonderful. There's not an untalented person in the Wainwright family. She's not as well-known and sounds very different from the other two, but she's no less amazing. Her voice is super clear and kind of angelic. She is smart funny and delightful. I adore her.
There are some interesting vocal harmonies and touches here. Think this is less of a guitar record and more about voices and atmospheres?
Yes and I think the New Pornographers had a lot to do with that. Being influenced by the fact that the vocal arranging is so over the top with them [laughs]. It becomes rather addictive to layer harmonies. It is just so instantly gratifying and I wanted more of that. I wanted men to sing on this record too. I realized I hadn't had that on records before. Why am I such a sexist? I've got to get some men on here. It is totally rude. You can't leave them out. "You men are only good enough to play the instruments. I'm sorry, you're not possibly good enough to sing on this record."
In terms of the New Pornographers, is it is much fun now as it was ten years ago?
It is more fun now, as it is a lot easier to schedule now. That's because we've got Kathryn [Calder]. There isn't tension about who is working when and if it's possible. So that has been very freeing. So nice to have Kathryn around. She's my buddy.
So you can pick and choose the dates you do with them?
Yes and no. I try not to miss things. I make sure I do all of the initial big market touring. Dan [Bejar] generally does that as well, but obviously we both can't be there all the time because we have to do other things too. Kathryn being there frees me up especially for when I can't be there. And they don't have to wait. They can go play shows they want to play, even if I'm not ther. Nobody is holding anybody back, but I still feel guilty sometimes if I miss something. I want to be there all the time, but there's only so much you can do physically, before you just lose your marbles.
Play much on their last tour?
I did the entire round of touring except for the very end, when I broke my ankle and had to go home. I made it through a few more shows, but it was too hard to have a broken ankle on the bus. It was almost impossible, and I finally went 'I want to go home. My foot hurts!
Was it a skiing accident?
No it was a walking down the sidewalk accident. I fell literally onto my back. I sort of flipped over myself, fell off the sidewalk, in front of everyone standing outside waiting to get into the show. Yes I was completely sober, right before the show. It was really embarrassing.
Any other mortifying moments you care to share?
That's the last one I can remember that was truly awful. Breaking your ankle in front of your audience, that's pretty embarrassing. And when I decided I had to go home. I felt so bad, I just started to cry. In my mind, it was "just make it to the cab without crying. You are going to freak the Canadians out. They can't take it, a crying woman. They can't handle it, do them a favour and make it to the cab." But I started bawling in front of them and I felt so bad, thinking "they're probably reeling from having to see that."
Off on a tangent here. What is your fascination with cyclones and hurricanes? You're not one of these tornado chasers are you?
No, I just had a dream about tornados that I really liked. I met a tornado in my dream, and it wanted me to read it a book cos it couldn't read the book itself. It couldn't hold the book, so it was asking me to read the book to it.Iit was a very sweet interaction we had, and it really stuck with me. I can't really read in my dreams, so I don't think I could make out what was on the cover.
Speaking of books, just before this interview I was reading Friend Of The Devil, a crime thriller from a Canadian author, Peter Robinson, and you appear in the book. [I show her the book and line that reads "Neil Young follows Neko Case with a blistering version of "Like A Hurricane"].
I saw this book advertised in the subway while I was making this record. That is weird! I didn't know I was in a book! And that's so funny, that I saw that ad in the subway all the time.
And in terms of pop culture stuff, tell us about Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Well, through a friend of mine, I was talking about Aqua Teen Hunger Force cos he does some writing for the Cartoon Network. I was saying I love that angry milkshake. I'm attracted to an angry cartoon milkshake, how weird. I think he told the story to Dave Willis, who runs the Cartoon Network, so Dave asked if I wanted to come on the show with Kelly [Hogan]. And Kelly's from Atlanta, so there's that Atlanta connection. So we went "of course we do," so we went on the show. Really weird and really fun. The ironic thing is it was the one episode the Aqua Teens are not in. Just us and John Kruk. I didn't get anywhere near the milkshake. They kept us apart. There's another show I've been working on with them called Cheyenne Cinammon And The Fantabulous Unicorn Of Sugar Town Candy Fudge I think it's called. It's about a teen pop star superhero. It's really dark and really funny. The pilot is almost finished. I don't know if it's got the green light to be a show that happens all the time, or if it's just that they got the green light to do the pilot. I'm not really sure. I'm hoping it's going to happen. I should ask the Cartoon Network if it's going to happen. Me and T-Pain, together at last. It's always been my dream, to star with T-Pain on a cartoon show.
Other dreams yet to be fulfilled?
I don't know. I'm kind of living it really. I'm in a band, I get to go on tour. I think I'm so busy keeping my fingers crossed all the time that everything is okay that I don't get ahead of myself too much. I'd like to swim with dolphins, like everybody would, but I don't know if that will happen or not.
You should go to New Zealand for that. Ever played there?
I will be touring there coming up, but so far we've only ever done Australia. Never had time, and that sucks. You always have to go through the NZ airport, so you look out the window and go, "there it is. It's so beautiful. I just want to stay." And they go "no, you have to leave for Los Angeles in ten minutes." It hurts, cos it is so beautiful, looking out the window. They rub it in your face. I want to go to Tasmania as well. Hobart, here I come.
How about Europe?
I haven't done much of Spain and I've never been to Greece, but played pretty much everywhere else. Not eastern Europe though.
Travel outside of touring?
No I stay home. I don't like to get onto planes unless I have to.
You referred to fear that this could all be taken away from you. Is that a common feeling?
I think everybody has that feeling. You can't just take it for granted - "we'll be doing this for years." You just don't know what will happen. You could get shot in the neck and never be able to sing again. I hope that doesn't happen, but you never know. You could have a lawnmower accident. A javelin accident.
Was there a time when you really realized you were on the right track and could make a living at this? Or that this was something you had to pursue?
I don't think there was ever a choice of whether or not to pursue it. Just that one day I realized I had to quit all my jobs as it wasn't fair to them. They always let me go and come back, go and come back. But then there was no more time to come back as I was always on tour. That was when I was about 33.
What was the craziest non-music job you had?
I had to work in the meat department of a supermarket. That was awful. My advice to everyone is don't buy meat from a supermarket. It turned me vegetarian for a while. Totally disgusting, totally mishandled, horrible. And I used to unload semi-trucks for UPS. I loved that job. I've done all kinds of stuff. Working in restaurants was always the most fulfilling. You could kind of give love to people you didn't know, by cooking for them. My favourite thing was to make soup. I was an animator for a while, animating shadows for the Tricks rabbit. I've had so many jobs, I can't remember them all.
It's like reading the background of novelists - lumberjack, railroad man etc?
Carl actually worked on the railroad, which is kind of funny. On there with the guy who started Vice magazine.
With your love of animals, ever dreamed of being a vet?
Oh yes, I wanted to be a vet when I was a little kid, but I realized I did not have the stomach for that sort of thing. I faint. I have to give my dog shots for allergies. The easiest shot ever. Grab a piece of skin, poke it in, and they don't even notice.
I have a phobia about needles, but had to give a diabetic cat shots, so I know what you mean.
I do too. Didn't you feel like "yes!" but right before I'd start breathing heavy, feeling a little faint. The dog or the cat don't care. They don't notice that I'm hyperventilating.
Last question. The fact you can and so often do benefits for the likes of animal shelters and organizations, that must be a good feeling?
Exactly. If you can't do one thing, there is always some other way you can help. I can be on a stage, not fainting giving a needle, whereas people who know how to use needles would faint with terror at being on a stage. We all have to do what we do.
Well please keep doing what you do!