The Second Coming of Casey Neill
Musings From the Best Band You’ve Never Heard
By Aaron Binder
It’s been miles since the last rest stop, the ghost town up ahead offers nothing more than a few tumbleweeds, wondering if the 1800’s were sepia coloured, and the chilling thought that you may have been the only person to pass through there in the last 6 months.
This place is empty, the echoes of the past barely audible anymore and the hope of a future has been long forgotten. The town may only be remembered by the withered pages of a 1960’s National Geographic or one old man at a retirement home 60 miles down the highway, but that doesn’t change the fact that as long as there is some reminder there, a story can always be told.
Casey Neill is just the kind of guy that would tell the story. A true song-writer, Neill and his band The Norway Rats have been singing about the wide open countryside of America for years now. With his latest album, Goodbye to the Rank and File, they have had the opportunity to do most of their exploration in the American northwest from their base in Portland.
Neill has been an accomplished musician for over 15 years, having the chance to be featured on a Grammy-nominated Pete Seeger tribute album, traveling the countryside with multiple bands, and being possibly being one of the only people alive that can sing with a country twang and still manage to speak like a Yankee.
I recently experienced a rather joyful 20 minutes on a particularly dull Thursday afternoon speaking with Casey about his new album, where his vibrant stories come from, and how mismanaging your career often finds your name being associated with words like ‘best band you’ve never heard’ and ‘hot, new act from Portland.”
Here’s the interview:
Aaron: I’ve been reading a lot about you lately, you’ve been called the band that every music expert doesn’t know but should. That’s a pretty cool tag to have, what do you think of that?
Casey: It’s great, it’s one of those things where there were a few reviews that came in for the album, there were like three in a row and all of them in the last couple of sentences said something like that. You know ‘nobody knows who this is, but they should’. I was reading it and really I’ve been putting out records and working as a songwriter for 15 years but kind of moving around stylistically a lot. Hearing that no one has heard of this guy but everybody should and why haven’t they? It gets a little depressing at one point because the only answer to that is mismanagement of my own career.
Maybe I should have done a better job of this…but what I’m pointing out is that I started out playing acoustic music but it was mostly in the punk scene and political music circles in the 90’s, then I got involved with the folk music community and got involved with a trio that put out a few records and we did a lot of stuff that was crossover bluegrass and Americana and then I increasingly did more and more into Irish music. We were doing my original songs mostly, but it became not the greatest outlet for my original songs as we did more traditional stuff.
So anyway, I started putting together a rock band at the urge of the producer I was working with, Johnny Cunningham, and finally it was like ‘why haven’t we done this the whole time?’ All these other forays into different styles and stuff were really cool and satisfying but from a marketing perspective it was like the last thing that’s ever been on my mind. I’d be doing a tour with Jello Biafra and then playing Bluegrass festivals and Irish music festivals and this…this makes sense to me.
Aaron: So this is really, over the past couple of years, the definition of your sound exactly how you want it to be played.
Casey: Yeah, exactly, that’s really it. When we started putting together the rock band it was really accomplished musicians and people I have a lot of history with. It takes a while for any band to get their legs and have a sound. Holbrook, the drummer in the band produced Goodbye to the Rank and File, he was super focused on having a unified sound and now we’ve got that, which is great.
Aaron: That’s one thing that really impacted me about the record, there seems to be a major unity lyrically and musically as well. Lyrically, it is a great collection of stories, what I find really neat is the spacing of the album, the stories seem to come from different sections of America. Where do you pick up most of these stories?
Casey: You know, some of it I don’t know. It’s really important for me to have a place in mind. Even if it’s poppier stuff that doesn’t name the place, I like to know where it is in my own head. With these songs I was trying to focus on the northwest largely because I’ve spent my whole adult life here. The album I did previously, Brooklyn Bridge, had a lot of east coast cities in it. It had a more urban, in terms of the storytelling, definitely based out east. So this is sort of delving into the northwest in terms of locale. A lot of it’s traveling, I grew up in a small town until I was 10, then I moved to New York City for most of my teenage years and then moved to the northwest when I was 17 and lived in Olympia that’s a total backwater that’s really a cool little creative zone. A lot of the people who were forming that scene were based in Portland for a long time and sort of all that collective history was poured into those songs. To some degree that’s the situation with the band too where some of us have known each other for a really long time and have been working in the trenches of the northwest music scene and some people have been in hugely successful bands and everyone still knows this is what we’re doing and hunkering down and doing it together.
Aaron: It’s interesting you bring that up as there is a definite collection of people coming out of Portland that are creating a lot of special music. Portland has a really small town feel to it though, how much of that do you think impacts your song-writing?
Casey: It’s an interesting time here because even with people moving here, there’s not a lot of high paying work here, so we’re kind of the last west coast city where it’s more affordable. It’s sort of been this really fertile place for music and arts and food where people are forging their own way because it’s on a lower scale than any other city on the west coast in terms of cost. As a result of that, there is massive support for all those things here and more of a great sense of community around music and all those other worlds too; it’s created a pretty interesting scene.
It’s got a lot of attention in some ways but at the same time, there is no defined Portland sound, there is certainly a lot of indie-pop…the band that’s really breaking out right now is a metal band called Red Fang. Awesome.
Aaron: I agree that Portland doesn’t really have a sound, but I think there are so many genres in the mix there that it would be difficult to have just one sound. What’s it like seeing all these people you’ve grown up with that have become successful, what does that do for your song-writing?
Casey: Well, I don’t know how it affects the songs…I guess what comes to mind is ‘When the World was Young’, it’s a song about people stubbornly sticking at it. People have reconciled with what I’m going to do with my life…I’m going to play rock and roll.
Aaron: Almost like when you’re younger you have all these bright intentions that may never reach fruition but you’re still going to try, no matter what.
Casey: Yes, exactly. As that young persons dream gets shattered over time, a lot of people fall away and people that stick at it are really devoted and the work ethic really gets higher because you realize what it takes, the amount of time you have to spend honing your craft and working on it. You realize that it’s a business where you can’t feel entitled to anything. A band can be huge one day and nobody can care about them the next day, or you can labour in obscurity for decades and you sort of have to steel yourself against it and have a love of it and surround yourself with people that will support it.
Aaron: In reference to yourself, do you feel the last couple of years have been a boost to your career? Almost like a second coming of Casey Neill…
Casey: yeah, I hope that’s just starting. Creatively I feel like I’ve finally found the sound I want and I feel like I’m writing the material I want and if we can continue that and more people catch on to it…it’s funny because some of the folk albums I did were in a world that’s a smaller world in the folk scene. I had a song on a Pete Seeger tribute that Bruce Springsteen was on, it was Grammy nominated and stuff, but stuff that got a lot of attention.
In a way, I feel like some of the stuff I did, every artist is going to pooh-pooh the stuff they did a long time ago, but I feel now that I’m ready. This is what I want out there in the world and this I really stand behind and I hope it resonates at a wider level.
Aaron: Do you think the music you’re writing now is more connective to the fans? When you’re playing it live, is the response different?
Casey: It’s different. I feel like a lot of people that have been coming to shows that have been listening to me for a long time that this album especially is resonating with them in ways that some of the stuff in between may not be. I mean some of the Irish stuff got pretty esoteric for some people, you either love it or you don’t.
I feel like it’s speaking to a lot of shared history on the west coast and even if they’re people I don’t know, they can relate to it. I definitely write love songs here and there, but I think people really like the stories, and if they’re stories they can see themselves in, then it’s going to move people and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do. We really want it to move people.
Aaron: You really want people to think of it 10-15 years from now and remember that song.
Casey: Yeah, or listen to the song and think of their life 10-15 years ago and just have it resonate at a deeper level, and you know that’s earnest even though that hasn’t been the most popular thing in music for a while.
Aaron: I know you mentioned a tour earlier, what else is on the books? I know you’re a guy that always has a lot of ideas floating around, is there a new album in the near future?
Casey: You know, we just got together the other day and rehearsed two new songs. Goodbye to the Rank and File had songs on it that we had been playing for two years before the album came out and that’s a cycle I’m trying to break. Instead of releasing an album every two to three years, we do it every year and a half so while we’re on a roll we can keep it going.
When you have two to three years to work on an album, you can cull from three years of writing, although most of the stuff that made the album, we started sessions for it in 2008 and we recorded most of it and then in 2009 we had a full record and went and recorded four more songs, but we only used one of the four…so we kind of had it already.
So now I’m starting to write for a new record, so the thing is, you write the stuff and it takes a while for it to gel in terms of really fleshing out the song personally and then I bring it to the band and we flesh it out musically and then hopefully we can play it live a few times and see how it does.
So, if we want something out in a year and a half, we really need to start now in terms of finding a theme for it and getting it under our fingers. We’ve got two new songs we started playing and I have another 10 or 20 that are done, but there are probably only two of those that I’ll bring to the band.
Aaron: Awesome, that’s about it, thanks for chatting today.