Catching Up With... Neko Case
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Read Paste's full conversation with Neko Case below, or return to rest of our issue 50 cover story here.
Paste: Are you still living in Tucson?
Case: I live here right now but I’m transitioning, moving to a farm.
Paste: How did that come about?
Case: I bought a farm. I didn’t buy the farm, I bought a farm. I’m a nature lover so I kinda want to go move there.
Paste: And are you going to be growing stuff on this farm?
Case: Oh yeah. Hay, vegetables, dogs. It’ll be a used-dog farm. I want horses and goats really bad. I haven’t really gotten to be around horses since I was little, so I’m kinda dying to. I really miss them.
Paste: How do you think farm life and touring life will mesh?
Case: It will mesh beautifully because when you tour it just doesn’t matter were you live.
Paste: Just gotta find somebody to take care of all those dogs.
Case: Yep the dog wrangler, to live on site. I’m very excited about it.
Paste: I got to hear the new album.
Case: Yeah? You got to hear it before me then, it's not even mastered yet.
Paste: It certainly sounds finished to me. Tell me a little bit about this barn in Vermont that you converted into a studio for the piano orchestras.
Case: Well I didn’t really convert it into a studio. Basically the floor was made of dirt, and so I hired a friend of mine to come in and put in a wood floor and build a stage. And it looks amazing, but then we decided it would be really hilarious to see how many free pianos we could get off of. Because that’s how I got a piano right off the bat, but when I went on I couldn’t believe how many free pianos there are on Craigslist. And I was like, well I have a barn. So I ended up with eight, which are playable. That’s when I came up with the idea for the piano orchestra. I thought it would just sound so beautiful to have a bunch of people playing piano at once in that barn because its so old; it's from like the 1780s. I mean, it is old. The wood inside, some of it's rotten, and you can see where they’ve built part of a newer barn over an older barn, and its just a crazy crazy place. The lady that I bought the barn from, she had written down in pencil every single person that’s ever lived there. She actually knew—she was a scientist and botanist and her and her husband had the farm for like 20 years—and they knew everything about the farm and they loved it. They took such good care of it and I kinda knew it was just the right place for me. I knew I was going to continue the farm in a way that they really would appreciate, so she told me all the history and that barn has been there, basically for the last couple hundred years. There's only a hundred years of people "legally" owning it, according to the government. Basically the barn is just so old, and it feels really good, and I was really excited. Like, I knew about the dairy cows that used to live there in the '40s and before that in the '20s, there was a man that raised Morgan horses and they are all buried underneath the orchard. There's just so much history there and I really wanted to do something there. We ended up with robins on the recording and frogs and all kinds of stuff. And with a barn, you just don’t have control, which was another element I really liked.
Paste: So is that where the final track of "post-album relaxation" comes from? The crickets on the farm?
Case: Yes. I actually went down to the pond and recorded that myself. There are frogs at the end of “Polar Nettles,” as well.
Paste: You have a pond on your farmland?
Case: Yeah. It’s about a hundred acres.
Paste: Why Vermont?
Case: I lived there when I was a little girl, and it was my favorite place I ever lived, and the people were so kind. I always wanted to go back, and I know that sounds like a fairy tale—“And the people of the land ”—but it really was true. I reconnected with my friends from when I was a little girl that also lived there, and they’re all the same excellent nice people. I was really scared to go back because I thought that it would have changed or been mowed down, and they would have built condos or something out there. But it turns out they’d gone backwards in time. Everybody I knew as a kid still lived there and looked exactly the same. It was really bizarre. I left in ’79 or ’80, so I was about 10. It was just great when I lived there. I was so sad to leave when my family left, and all I ever wanted to do was get back. So on a trip to Portland, Maine, we decided we would go see if we could find the farm that I lived on as a kid. And the lady who bought the farm after we lived there. I actually knew her, and she still lived there. We pulled up to the farm, and she was standing in the driveway. I said, “Hello, Sally,” and it was really amazingly easy, and it just made sense. It just worked out really nice.
Paste: Your history has been moving from place to place. You moved around a lot as a kid too and left home very young. What is it that’s driving you from place to place because Seattle, Tucson, Vermont—those are very different worlds?
Case: Economics. It’s not usually for want of being somewhere until I moved to Tucson. When I moved to Chicago, I really wanted to move to Toronto but I didn’t have a visa to do that, and I wasn’t going to do that illegally because I work in Canada all the time, and I wasn’t going to endanger my good neighbor status with Canada. I love Chicago, too, and I had a lot of friends there. It turned out I loved Chicago and had the best time. I was on tour for two years while I lived there, and I had a little, tiny bit of money for the first time in my life. I realized that if I didn’t buy a house now, the money would be gone and I would have nothing. I couldn’t afford to buy a house in Chicago, so I decided to go to Tucson because, at the time—2002—it was so cheap. I recorded all the time so it made sense for my job. And I had a lot of good friends here who are on tour all the time, and then I moved here, and I’m loving it. But on that trip to Vermont, I just kind of realized I don’t need to live in a city; I need to live with some trees. Because I come from trees. That’s what I miss. Not that I don’t love Tucson. I could try living in both places, but I don’t think that would work. I’m not that kind of person. I’ve got to have everything in one place. That’s something that rich people do, and I don’t know how they do it. I don’t really get that. I could understand why they want to do it, but I have too many animals and they’re really large. You cant just get on a plane from Tucson with four gigantic dogs.
Paste: I’ve talked to other touring musicians who’ve found a remote place to call home since they’re touring from city to city and getting that urban exposure every day.
Case: Yeah, and I grew up half urban and half in the middle of nowhere, so I feel like I should keep that going. It just feels kinds natural. Because half of the year I’d live with my dad and half the year I’d live with my mom. With my mom it could be absolutely anywhere, and with my dad it would be somewhere poor and urban in Washington.
Paste: Who did you record with in Vermont?
Case: Just the piano orchestra there. And the rest of it was recorded at Wave Lab [in Tucson].
Paste: You’ve recorded the last couple records at Wave Lab. What keeps you going back there?
Case: I love the sounds that Craig [Schumacher] gets, and we just have really great communication. He himself is a really great musician, and he has perfect pitch and great ideas. He’s enthusiastic. The man is a tough nerd for sound, and I love that. I love it when people love their job. He can’t wait to get to work and start thinking of new, ridiculous things we can do with mic’ing an amplifier inside a piano or something. He understands singing really well. Like I said, he has perfect pitch, and he’s not afraid to go, “Sharp, flat, sharp do it again!” Sometimes when you’re inside your head, you can’t tell. So its good to have someone say, “Nah, you can do better than that. Do it again!” He’s a great cheerleader.