Neko Case comes alive as "The Tigers Have Spoken"

Brian Baker, January 2005

To say that Neko Case maintains a busy schedule is an understatement on a par with calling Jimi Hendrix a serviceable guitarist. Case's burgeoning and much lauded alt.-country solo career keeps her in the studio and on the road. Her membership in the Corn Sisters is an interesting old time music diversion, and her involvement in the pop majesty of Carl Newman's New Pornographers is yet another stellar entry on an already impressive resume.

Case's unnervingly packed schedule may well have been the determining factor that inspired her decision to create her newest album, "The Tigers Have Spoken," from the stage rather than the studio.

It was an idea born of logic, but not necessarily supported by the reality of the situation.

"I thought it was going to be the easy and fast way to make a way," says Case from Tucson, Az., where she's working on her next studio album. "Making a live record is incredibly difficult and very expensive. It's way harder to make a live album than a studio album. You've got to have a giant recording truck outside with two-inch tape. There's a lot of pressure. The hours in the studio were less, but the hours in the studio mixing were not less. It was an ordeal, but it was a fun ordeal."

Case set up a series of shows in Chicago and Toronto last spring with the express purpose of recording them for an album. In Case's mind, it was both a respite from the rigors of the studio and the realization of a longstanding desire.

"I needed to take a break from making studio albums, and I'd always wanted to make a live album," says Case. "A lot of my favorite recordings, some of the older music I like, are live - and not that weird, doctored-up live, but the warts-and-all live."

Case enlisted musical assistance from her old friends Travis and Dallas Good and their rockabilly/country/surf outfit, The Sadies, along with a number of friends (steel pedal virtuoso Jon Rauhouse, Corn Sisters band mate Carolyn Mark, fellow alt.-country chanteuse Kelly Hogan and Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops), pressed "play" and hit the stage.

The fascinating result is "The Tigers Have Spoken," her fourth solo album and her debut for Epitaph imprint Anti.

"Tigers" is a unique blending of the concepts of a straight live album and an album of new material, comprised of a number of energetically arranged covers (among them, Loretta Lynn's "Rated X," Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue," Freakwater's "Hex" and the Shangri-Las' "The Train From Kansas City") and a quartet of Case's own compositions - two from her existing catalog and two new songs written with The Sadies.

Case's original intention was to decamp with The Sadies and write an entire album's worth of new songs for "The Tigers Have Spoken," but the band was in the midst of working up their own new album ("Favourite Colours" on Yep Roc), and the time required to collaborate never became available.

"Neither of our schedules would have permitted such a thing," says Case. "The good thing is that we spent two or three weeks rehearsing before we did the shows - and we worked really hard - and we have two other songs from that particular session. We just didn't think the live versions did them justice because they weren't really done yet, so we ended up recording them for the studio album."

In lieu of the writing collaboration, Case and The Sadies put their heads together to choose the eclectic range of cover songs they would perform for the album. The process was neither difficult nor time consuming.

"A few were things that we already loved," says Case. "The reason we did 'Rated X' is because it's a song we used to do together like eight years when we played together; it was like our little reunion show. And Dallas and I have always been into the Shangri-Las, so that made perfect sense. And I brought 'Soulful Shade of Blue' and played it for them and they were like, 'Yeah, that's great!' They always had veto power; I wasn't going to make them anything they didn't want to do because the record is also partly theirs. It's not just my record."

"I wanted them to feel comfortable and proud of what they were doing, so if there was some song that they didn't like or thought was goofy, we wouldn't have done it. But we didn't really end up in that situation. We picked the covers really fast, in the course of about a half an hour one afternoon."

"I had been thinking and working on it so hard for so long before I met up with them. I had many alternate plans and other songs. Like we had a Nick Lowe song which we didn't end up using, but we recorded it for a movie called 'Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar.' So some of things wound up going elsewhere. We played them all, we just didn't use them all."

Similarly, Case and The Sadies wound up playing considerably more of Case's originals than are represented on the disc. Although they played a full set of songs for the shows, "Tigers" ultimately clocks in at a brisk 34 minutes.

"It's the length of a vinyl album. That's the attention span I have," says Case. "Two sided vinyl. No double album Led Zeppeliny experience. Not that there's anything wrong with Led Zeppelin doing it, but if I were to make a double CD or an hour and a half-long CD, it would be self indulgent and crappy, and I would be so burnt out on it that I wouldn't even enjoy it. You have to enjoy it while you're making it, or you're going to make a super crappy record. Not like I'm a genius now, but that material seemed right, and that seemed like the best parts of the show to us, and we all decided together what we wanted."

Another of Case's concerns was that the album reflect the way the band sounded live in the moment, without any studio overdubbing. Other than one unavoidable stage snafu that required correction, the contents are exactly as heard by the Chicago and Toronto audiences.

"It wasn't hard not to tinker with (the tapes). The hard part was getting used to living with certain things after knowing what you can get in the studio," says Case. "I don't tinker much with the studio albums either, but that's because everything is recorded separately. You're not going to have cymbal mikes in the vocal mike when you record in the studio. You don't have these problems. I don't use pitch correction or that horrible Autotune; we don't do those things. There's live records where people go in and totally re-record tracks, and I felt very staunch about not doing it, but we ended up having to do it on one thing. And that's because we had acoustic guitar on one song where the drive input failed, and so we had Travis come in and redo the guitar. So I always want to be very upfront about that so people don't think I'm a 'Live-at-Budokan' scam artist."

Elsewhere, more oblique considerations were used in determining the composition of the album's set list. One of Case's favorite numbers had to be deleted simply because of its unlucky content.

"There's this song with Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops, which we didn't use on the album because we would have had three train songs if that had been the case," she says with a laugh. "I think when my web site is finished, that song will be downloadable there. I love Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops, they're one of my favorite bands in the world, and I totally wanted this song on there, but we had to not use it because of the train factor. It wasn't our Jimmie Rogers tribute album."

As with the covers, Case had a personal agenda for selecting which of her original songs made the final track listing.

"I chose 'Blacklisted' because I kind of thought it was better than the recorded version; that night it just seemed to work really nice," says Case. "That's one of my more favorite songs, and I thought it would be good to include at least one song that people were familiar with, and I thought that song best represented my stuff that people have heard. I put 'Favorite' on there because the live version sounds completely different from the recorded version, and that song is not so widely available, but it has a special spot for me because it's the first song I ever wrote with a guitar."

That same kind of nostalgia is ultimately the reason for The Sadies' appearance. Case had worked with the Good brothers early in her career after relocating from Tacoma, Wash. to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Her original intent was to attend art school in Vancouver (the drawings on "Tigers" are all by Case), but she had also been a drummer in Tacoma's indie rock scene and she gravitated toward Vancouver's scene as well. She did stints with the punk band Maow and roots rockers the Weasles before putting together her own band, the Boyfriends.

In 1997, Case released her first solo album, "The Virginian," a foray into straight country with a familiar and well-balanced blend of covers and original songs. By this time, she was already ensconced in the New Pornographers and working with them regularly.

She finished school the following year, moved back to Washington and put together her second solo album, the hauntingly beautiful "Furnace Room Lullaby," which garnered her a Bloodshot contract and a ton of critical praise.

After another move - to Chicago, Case released the show-only Canadian "Amp" EP in 2001 and followed with the dark and smoky "Blacklisted" in 2002, an album that cemented Case's reputation as a first class singer/songwriter and earned her an opening gig on Nick Cave's tour that year plus a place on a good many year end top 10 lists.

While never one to look back, Case missed the early days of gigging around with the Goods and was determined to do a project with them at some point. Everyone's schedule finally aligned for "Tigers."

"The Sadies and I used to work together a lot a long time ago until we got so busy," says Case. "And I don't live in Canada anymore, which made it harder. We'd run into each other and we'd be like, 'We miss each other, let's make a record together.' And we'd been saying it for years, and finally I just called them up, and they said, 'That would be so much fun!' And it was ridiculously fun."

About the time Case was conceiving "Tigers," her Bloodshot contract expired. Deciding it was time to branch out and try something new, she examined her options and found a great deal of label interest. She finally settled with legendary punk label Epitaph, whose Anti division is home to Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull and Case's old tour mate Nick Cave.

"Everybody was really nice, and it was difficult to decide where to go, but Anti was interested first," says Case. "I feel very grateful to everyone for their interest, but unfortunately you can only pick one. Otherwise, that creates serious problems."

2005 looks to be another hectic year for Case. She continues working on her new album toward a hopeful September release date and the eventual touring that will inspire. A new Corn Sisters album could be in the offing at some point and as Carl Newman's recent solo activity winds down, Case is awaiting word on a possible recording schedule for the next New Pornographers album. And although she's back in the studio with The Sadies for her new record, she won't be hitting the road with them right away. But she knows their paths will cross again soon.

"I'm going to go on tour with my regular band - Tom Ray (on bass) and Jon Rauhouse (pedal steel)," says Case. "The Sadies are very busy; they just put out a fantastic album so they're going to be busy on their own. This has been like the great reunion time. They're one of my favorite bands in the world. I know that we'll tour again in the future. We can't stay away from each other. We're all so in love."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •