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In the epic battle between Man and Nature, Neko Case’s allegiance is clear. On her 2004 live album, The Tigers Have Spoken, she sings on the title track about a captured tiger: “They shot the tiger on his chain / in the field behind the cages / he walked in circles ’til he was crazy / and he lived that way forever.” On 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, Case tries to save a bird from certain death in “Maybe Sparrow.” The empathy continues on the new Middle Cyclone, both for man-eaters on “People Got A Lot Of Nerve”—“You know they call them ‘killer’ whales / but you seemed surprised when it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank”—and nature in general on “This Tornado Loves You.” It all goes to show that Case is fascinated by what can’t be tamed, which her own rootless life has undoubtedly influenced. She moved around as a child, and has called a few places home over the past decade—Seattle, Chicago, Tucson. Even now that she’s purchased a 100-acre farm in Vermont—where she spent time as a child—Case remains unfettered: She’ll spend most of the next two years on the road. She recently spoke to The A.V. Club about making her new album, and how dream dictionaries are bullshit.
The A.V. Club: How much did Fox Confessor raise your profile? It seems like you’re playing bigger venues on this upcoming tour.
Neko Case: I think that’s pretty much the difference. I don’t think I’ve noticed anything else. I mean, everything is kind of the same to me. It’s all the same job. There’s the same things to worry about. It’s just there are more people, which is nice. I mean, that’s ultimately the goal.
AVC: Confessor sold significantly more than your previous records, right?
NC: Yeah, I think so. I’m guessing. I don’t really pay attention to that stuff very much. I’m kind of bad for questions like that.
AVC: Do you ever listen to the earlier records?
NC: Very rarely.
AVC: Can you listen to yourself comfortably?
NC: Not usually, no.
AVC: Do you just hear the mistakes, or what could’ve been?
NC: Well, yeah. I mean, hopefully when you’re making records, you develop, and so you hear the things you want to move away from. It stings a little, but you know, you gotta own it too. You’ve got to just go, “You know, I wasn’t afraid to learn in front of people, so I give myself a little credit for not being afraid of anything.”
AVC: How much do you usually write in the studio? Are the songs usually pretty close to being done when you come in?
NC: This time they were pretty close to being done when we came in, because we actually rehearsed as an entire band for these tracks for the first time ever. So a lot of them were actually pretty close to being done, and they weren’t any easier to get down. They were fully formed in our minds, at least. We had the parts better, so when we were overdubbing things, it was easier.
AVC: You started working on Middle Cyclone last January. How was the schedule broken up?
NC: It was rehearsal, so we were working on it really hard, but nothing had gone to tape yet. We didn’t put anything to tape ’til March. We worked on it on and off all year between touring for both Fox Confessor and for The New Pornographers—“we” being me and the band. I know I sound like the Queen of England, but I always mean my bandmates.
AVC: Is it good to take frequent breaks like that, or does it kill momentum?
NC: No, no, no, there’s no such thing as momentum after two weeks. It’s just soupy after two weeks. It’s good to change your perspective, and playing with The New Pornographers is really great, because I’m still practicing and singing, but I’m doing completely different things. It’s like you’re still exercising, but you’re not doing the triathlon every single day, if that makes sense. Could there be a sexier metaphor?
AVC: You’ve always championed the happy accidents that make albums. What were some of the ones on this record?
NC: There were a lot of times where there would be too much going on, and I would just think, “Well, let’s just take everything out and see what that does,” and then that would really work. Things like space. Sounds like to have space sometimes. It’s good to give yourself a variety, or you just fatigue your ear. Like if somebody sings in the same register all the time, or if it’s got the same feel the whole way through, I just find I get fatigued, so it’s nice to break it up.
AVC: Your records have all been known for their airiness and atmosphere, but you also have eight pianos at one point on this one, too.
NC: Well that one was one of the instances where more was better. Sometimes it’s good to overdo it, and sometimes it’s good to understate it. I guess just figuring out the difference sometimes is as different as night and day. You’ll be thinking about it for four months, like “Why is this not working?” and then you suddenly one day are eating a scone, and you go, “Oh, I know what to do.” And it’s that easy.
AVC: How do you avoid fatigue in that situation? It seems like, as you said, it would just sound soupy.
NC: Well, that’s when you just get up and leave, and you come back later. I would kind of tag-team with Darryl [Neudorf, co-producer]. Sometimes I would just say, “You know what, I’m not coming in today. I’m going to the movies.” And he would go, “No problem, I’ll work on all these crazy noises we have to get rid of from the cable hitting the mic stand,” or whatever.
AVC: All the minutiae sound excruciating.
NC: Unless you’re Darryl. He loves minutiae. That’s why it’s so great to have a partner when you’re doing something like that, because I can’t imagine mixing an entire record alone. I don’t even like writing songs by myself, necessarily. I get lonely. I want input. I want to make sure that I’m not making the wrong decision, so it’s really great to have somebody be a sounding board. I have weird, crazy ideas, and he has weird, crazy technical ideas that I don’t know about, so we come together with extra ideas. It’s nice.
AVC: Do you ever feel like you’re done?
NC: It’s really hard to let go—really, really, really hard. But there’s a certain point where your brain… For example, we had some problems with the mastering, which had nothing to do with the mastering job that we’d done. There was an edition of it that I heard that was recorded on something that made it like six dB too quiet, and Paul [Rigby, guitarist] was like “God, it’s so quiet. There’s something wrong with the mastering.” Luckily we figured out what was wrong, and we fixed it. But when I finally heard it at the right level and heard everything Peter [Moore] had done to it mastering-wise, it was like, “Yes, that sounds right. Okay, that’s what we were working for.” ’Cause there’s this weird thing where it just clicks over, and it sounds like a song to you, and you’re not hearing all the little tiny parts sticking out. You can actually hear it as a song—that gives you that little butterfly feeling in your stomach, and then you’re like, “Okay!”
There’s not like a science to it, necessarily, but I’m also the kind of person who spends a long time in the studio. I will spend my entire advance just getting it done, which is probably stupid, but I don’t have extravagant taste. I mean, I paid for it, so there you go. Why not? The recording process is also very fun to me, and I get to be with a lot of people I don’t get to see as much as I’d like to. We go out and have dinner and hang around with each other, and it becomes a time in your life. It’s not just like, “We’ve got to get this job done!”, like you’re working for the Pony Express or something. “I gotta get this to Abilene today!”
NC: I know that I’m in a lot of them. I don’t think they’re really about me, necessarily, or about anyone in particular—maybe “Next Time You Say Forever” a little bit. But there aren’t particular stories about other people, and the love songs aren’t songs about me being in love with people, necessarily. They’re more songs that are love songs between a tornado and a person. But my own experiences are in there. I can’t deny that, because mine’s the only experience I have, so I don’t have any choice. That’s all I got!
AVC: You’ve spoken a lot in interviews about the love songs on this record, but “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” “The Tigers Have Spoken,” even “Maybe Sparrow” all speak to the theme of taming what can’t be tamed.
NC: Or not taming what can’t be tamed.
AVC: Exactly, and a general empathy for animals. Why do you think you revisit that so much?
NC: I think I just have an empathy for nature in general, which I think is why I’ve kind of branched out into not just animals, but also weather. [Laughs.] Getting into weather these days, you know, tornadoes. I think that the more human you realize you are, the more of an animal you realize you are—meaning that it’s okay to not have all the answers. It’s a very Faustian kind of thing—like when Faust asks the minion of the devil to tell him the meaning of life and love, and the devil and the minion go, “Well, Faust, I could tell you that, but your human brain is so small that you wouldn’t get it, so I’m not going to waste my time.” That seems like a really terrible thing, but it’s actually a huge relief. It makes you more forgiving of mankind, and I think it really opens the floodgates of compassion.
AVC: This album talks about dreams, too. Have you ever looked at a dream dictionary?
NC: Dream dictionaries are so disappointing. They’re so limited, and I think they’re just total bullshit. I really do. I don’t know much about the Freudian theory of dreams; it’s probably more interesting than your average hippie dream dictionary, but it’s got to be a lot deeper than that. It can’t all be about sex all the time, so I don’t know if Freud is right either.
AVC: Those dictionaries will be like, “A tornado signifies unrest or disruption.” Oh, thanks for that. I couldn’t figure that one out on my own.
NC: Yeah, that’s not completely obvious or anything.
AVC: You’ve always moved around a lot. How much of an adjustment was it to put money down and buy a hundred acres of land with a farm and say, “Okay, this is a home base?”
NC: Well, I had been looking for that for a really long time, and I’d always wanted to go back to Vermont, so that felt really right, actually. Having bought this house in Tucson for my mom, basically, that makes it easy. Because once you buy a house, you go, “What the fuck was I doing, giving rent away all this time?” But I couldn’t have bought a house any earlier than I did, and I couldn’t have bought a house at any other time than I did in Tucson, because it was really cheap at the time. I think I was here in the last six months, and you could buy a house for less than $100,000. I had looked in Chicago; I wanted to stay in Chicago, but it was like half a million dollars for a house. So I was like, “Fuck it, I gotta go.” Then I chose Tucson because I have some friends here, and I record here all the time, and I don’t know, it’s just an easier pace. I didn’t want to spend my two weeks off on tour, even though I love Humboldt Park [in Chicago], trying to get to the drugstore, digging my van out of the snow. It takes like an hour and a half to get all those things done, and then you come back, and then you’ve got to find a parking spot because some asshole stuck a chair in the spot that you just dug out. I just didn’t have that much free time. I needed some rest, and it was good for me.
AVC: It’s a quality-of-life thing, too. Those everyday hassles eat away at you over time.
NC: They do. I was a little tired of getting my car broken into constantly. The shit people would steal—my grandmother’s dishes that she got from like the grocery store in the ’50s that weren’t worth anything. It’s like, “Man, really, give me a break already.”