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The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #26 March-April 2000

Neko Case

Destiny rides againNeko Case trusts her instincts, and her Boyfriends

The feeling was clearly mutual. On their 1990 PopLlama Records release Thrillsphere, Girl Trouble recorded a song titled “Neko Loves Rock ‘n’ Roll”, a tribute to the full-throttle fan who had become a regular at their shows. “It was sweet; it was one of the nicest things anybody’s ever done,” Case says of the song. “Not to say that I don’t get completely flustered every time I hear it — like, oh my god!”

You may think she’ll satisfy your soul
You may think you’re gonna reach your goal
You better listen to what you’ve been told
No my brother, Neko loves rock ‘n’ roll!

Neko and a few of her fellow rock ‘n’ roll lovers eventually formed a band called the Del Logs, making their debut at a storied Tacoma hangout called the Java Jive (the building is shaped like a giant coffeepot). A second band, the Propanes, followed; the music was punk, but hints of her grandmother’s influence peeked through the thrashing.

“It came more from a country side than an industrial side or a plain punk rock side,” she says. “It was definitely very Cramps-flavored. And the Flat Duo Jets have been my favorite band since I was like 17, so I always kind of wanted to be in a band like that. And my friend [and bandmate] Laura Woods was also a pretty big influence on me; she knew a lot about really great records that you couldn’t get a lot of places, that were really odd. She was definitely more into the country side of things, and the rockabilly side of things.”

One of those odd records Woods turned Case on to became a turning point in Neko’s musical destiny, prompting her to consider doing more than just play the drums. Woods “gave me my favorite record of all time, which is Bessie Griffin & the Gospel Pearls’ Swing Down Sweet Chariot,” Case says. “Which I think is the record that made me want to be a singer more than anything in the world.”

[A thorough search of music reference resources revealed no such record by this title, which may not be surprising given Case's comment that "I've never seen another copy of it." In any event, Griffin, who died in 1989 at age 66, was "one of gospel music's legendary soloists," according to Opal Louis Nations of Roots & Rhythm Newsletter, even if her recordings remain largely out-of-print and unknown to the general public.]

That it was a gospel record which set Case’s world on its ear perhaps reflected a general broadening of horizons dawning on her at the time. “Getting out of my early teens, I realized, ‘OK, this [punk rock] has taken you this far, and it’ll still be part of whatever you do, but you need to have all the other things now too,’” she recalls.

Partly she was just looking for voices with which to identify. “After awhile in punk rock, there just wasn’t an empathy that was akin to my own,” she says. “And I kind of missed melody. And then I went back and started listening to more country records again, and lots of jazz vocalists and girl-group records. And just got really super into gospel music and country music around that time. I just started looking all over the place for voices that made me feel like I felt that way.”

Not that punk and rock ‘n’ roll had necessarily faded from view entirely. “The Muffs were a huge influence on me,” she continues. “I had waited for so long for women to write the songs, play the guitars, sing the kickass songs very unapologetically, while not having to address the fact that they’re women.”

Little wonder, then, that she ended up in Maow with Tobey Black and Corrina Hammond shortly after moving to Vancouver to attend art school in 1994. “They had had some songs, and they needed a drummer, and they decided that I was their drummer,” she recalls with a laugh. All three women in Maow sang; they released one album on Mint, The Unforgiving Sounds Of Maow, in 1996.

Around the same time, she also did a tour playing drums with another Vancouver girl-group, Cub, and started playing occasional duo gigs with Victoria, B.C., singer-guitarist Carolyn Mark under the name Corn Sisters. “I just had a dream one night that she and I were in a band called the Corn Sisters,” Case says. “And I called her, and I’m like, ‘Carolyn, we’re in this band, and we have tap shoes, and we stomp on these boards…’ And she was like, ‘Well, then, it has to be!’”

Most significantly, however, the seeds were beginning to germinate for Case’s first solo record. “I had written all these songs that weren’t really appropriate for Maow necessarily; they were kind of country songs,” she says. “I was walking down the street one day in Vancouver, and I thought, ‘Man, I’d really like to make a record for my Grandma, and sing country songs for my Grandma. And I was like, ‘Why do you have to wait?’

“So I just turned around and walked to my record company [Mint], and I just bravely said, ‘Uh, Phil, I gotta talk to you about something…’ And he goes, ‘Oh, what, do you want to make a solo record?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, actually, yeah…’

“They thought about it for a couple days, and they were so cool, they didn’t even have to hear any demos; they were like, ‘Sure, you can make this record.’ Without them, I don’t know what I would’ve done, because nobody would’ve let me make a record never hearing the music I had written.”

Case co-produced The Virginian with Brian Connelly, a guitarist formerly with Toronto surf-instrumental band Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, and Darryl Neudorf, who ran Miller Block studio and used to be in Vancouver rock band 54/40. The wide-ranging herd of “Boyfriends” helping out included singers Carl Newman (of Sub Pop band Zumpano) and her Corn Sisters partner Mark; and instrumentalists John Reischman (mandolin) and Paul Pigat (steel guitar).

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Originally Featured in Issue #26 March-April 2000

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