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Armed with both grit and wit, Neko Case heads north

  • Author: Katie Medred
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published September 2, 2015

Singer-songwriter Neko Case will play in Anchorage on her birthday, Sept. 8. The three-time Grammy-nominated artist -- who was recently on some down time from touring with The New Pornographers and in Portland, Oregon -- admits this over the phone. It just slips out between confessions of being a die-hard fan of Vietnamese food. "It's gonna be my birthday, so I'll hit like five [restaurants] on my way to the show," she jokes.

Case is funny. She's sarcastic and warm, and after a few pho jokes she moves onto quips about her bandmate Dan Hunt, the group's drummer, who won't be coming to Anchorage because he'll have a new baby at home. The jokes quickly lead into a light, sardonic conversation about what Case calls her own "failings" as a drummer.

"It's like the neglected child in my life," she says. "But I love drumming."

Case got her start behind a kit. As an 18-year-old college student living in Vancouver, Canada, she played percussion for a handful of obscure, punk-inspired bands. Most notable, perhaps, were the 1990s pre-pop punk bands Maow and Cub, both earning the endearing label of "cuddlecore," a genre in line with the Pacific North West's riot grrrl movement. It was during her time playing with Maow that Case moved from the kit to the microphone.

"I mean, the drumming that other people [were doing was] better than my drumming," Case explains, "and there's a natural boredom that arises if you don't challenge yourself with something."

For a while Case both sang and played the drums, most often at the same time, but admits, "I was able to be a better singer if I wasn't drumming. If I had kept drumming, maybe I would have been able to do both decently, but I wanted to try different things too."

Maow disbanded in the late '90s and Case began her new life as a singer-songwriter, first under the moniker Neko Case & her Boyfriends and later as just Neko Case. Singing, she says, naturally took over her musical trajectory. "I wasn't thinking that hard about it, I was just doing it, more than anything," she said.

Her first solo album, 1997's "The Virginian" was a standard alternative country one and featured a rotating cast of backing band members of both genders, including Rose Melberg, Carolyn Mark, Carl Newman, Matt Murphy, Darryl Neudorf and Brian Connelly.

"Furnace Room Lullaby" followed in 2000 and around that same time Case joined forces with Canadian pop rock band The New Pornographers as a vocalist. The group released a new album, "Brill Bruisers," just last year.

Case now juggles her solo career with her contributing roll in The New Pornographers. Between the two projects, she says, with their different recording sessions and touring schedules, she's on the road most of the time.

"I try not to go out for longer than three weeks at a time, but often there will only be a week to two weeks in-between," Case says, "so you go home, but it's not enough to really ground you. There's no time to form relationships with people you don't already know … there's just no time to do the things that form a 'life' … there's no time to get ripped at the gym! My black belt career is totally on hold!"

Case's sense of humor seems to be the thing that really keeps her grounded. And her combination of honest discomfort and playful sarcasm shows itself clearly in her sixth solo studio album, "The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You."

Released in 2013, "The Worse Things Get," gets really real. On it, Case spins songs of broken relationships and untenable responsibilities. But, despite all the adversities her lyrics divulge, Case's brand of comedic coping outshines the seriousness of this album. She has admitted in previous interviews that the "The Worse Things Get" is autobiographical, saying her "mind didn't have room for anything else" at the time.

The album was released to mixed reviews. Music website Consequence of Sound gave it a C+, calling it "solipsistic" and claiming it left the listener out in the cold. Critics for Pitchfork and NME disagreed, and NME called it "A gorgeously full offering." "The Worse Things Get" was nominated for "Best Alternative Music Album" Grammy in 2014, but it did not end up winning the category.

A few of the band members who helped piece together "The Worse Things Get" will be traveling up alongside Case to Alaska this September. John Rauhouse (guitar, pedal steel, banjo), Tom V. Ray (bass) and Eric Bachmann (guitar, piano) will all be in tow. In addition to drummer Hunt, backing vocalist Kelly Hogan will be absent from the Anchorage performance; she's currently on tour with Portland, Oregon, band The Decemberists.

Case said she was last in Anchorage as a 15-year-old, "back when you could smoke on an airplane." She came up to visit her father who was living in Alaska and working as a draftsman at an oil company. The visit, although "awesome," was not the romanticized Alaska experience.

"My dad broke his ankle the first day I was up there," She says. "We watched a lot of TV. It was wintertime, so we just did a lot of eating and hanging out."

The accident happened the first day of her trip while the two were out sledding, Case said.

"I don't know how he broke his ankle sledding," she says, "because he'd never broken anything doing anything else. And he'd been sledding his whole life. I do not know why [it happened] then."

As for the rest of the state, Case says she'd "totally play in Fairbanks and Juneau if it were possible," but says she's not yet heard back from any of the venues she had reached out to in those areas. "It's expensive to get bands around," Case says, "so, we'll see what happens. But it's on my wish-list."

The subject changes once again, as Case sidesteps and launches into explaining her next career move, as a vocalist-drummer, in jest.

"Yeah. I think I'm just going to write some drum vocal albums. That's where I'm gonna make the bulk of my money that I'll retire on," she says. "I'll be on the cover of 'Modern Drummer' next month when I master it! Maybe I can get a grant to make that album? No. They'd never give me a grant for that."

Neko Case

When: 8 p.m. (doors) Tuesday, Sept. 8

Where: Bear Tooth TheatrePub

Tickets: $42, 21+ only

Katie Medred is a freelance music writer living and working in Anchorage. Visit her blog, Beat & Pulse, Alaska, at beatandpulsealaska.tumblr.com for more.

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