Closet Metalheads, Pt. 2: Neko Case

After years of trying to interview the esteemed alt-country badass—and mega-huge metal nerd for life—Neko Case for our Closet Metalheads column, we finally scored in issue #136 (Abbath cover, February 2016). But Case couldn’t be contained to a single page. From Bill Ward’s fashion sensibilities to metal’s liberating power for women and queers, Case’s passion for the heavy stuff runneth over like crazy. Case promised she would be back to spew more love all over our pages, but in the meantime, check out the remnants of our conversation below. (Note: This interview was conducted on Freddie Mercury’s birthday—unbeknownst to either of us. Coincidence?)

Do you recall the moment heavy metal first came into your life and what your reaction was?

No, I just remember finding Black Sabbath grooves very soothing. Bill Ward has been my favorite drummer for a long time, too. I like his fashion, you know, Viking braids and shirts with stars on them. Obviously I like his drumming. I found myself wearing the same outfits many times, and I’d think to myself, “Bill Ward would wear this.”

What was it about heavy metal—be it the music, the artwork, the bands—that was so alluring to you as a kid?

Well as a little kid, the artwork was kinda scary, but it was also cartoony and exciting. The movie Heavy Metal came out when I was about 7, and I really wanted to see that but I couldn’t because there was boobies in it. It was the forbidden fruit.

You’ve covered “Number of the Beast” and you’ve praised Iron Maiden, not only for their music but also their nerdiness and longevity. What are some of your other personal landmark metal albums that you’ve worn out over the years?

I was thinking about this and I actually stumped myself while I was alone. I had a really big Master of Puppets period when it came out. That record was a huge companion to me when I was having a really hard time right before I left home. I’d go to sleep to it at night on my headphones and feel good about it. The Melvins were a big deal to me because they were this crazy hybrid and were that kinda awesome power sound that was kinda the Black Sabbath thing but also kinda punk rock in their way just because of where they were and who they played with. Those things are such a big deal to me. And bands like Corrosion of Conformity. There’s a trillion. There’s so much crossover—and the word crossover was used a ton back then—I think I would basically have to go into a hyperbaric chamber and go into a trance to remember everything. I’m totally stumping myself because I know there are so many other metal bands that I love so hard.

What about the spate of people wearing metal T-shirts or liking metal music and culture “ironically”?

I don’t really care. I definitely don’t wear it ironically.

As far as your music and your career, you’ve always had a very fierce, bad-ass edge to you. I believe you once told a crowd that “Prison Girls” could be a Slayer or Celtic Frost song. The Neko Case on those albums is not a cuddly sweetheart. You will cut a bitch. Has heavy metal informed your identity as a songwriter, as an artist?

Oh absolutely. Who doesn’t wanna rock? It’s tied in with a lot of my childhood too, feeling really free. I remember the first time really feeling like I could maybe be a cool young person at 10 years old going to the state fair, and metal would be blasting on the midway. I’d be hanging out with my cousins, feeling all tough at 10 years old. I got the bracelet that says I can ride the Zipper as many fuckin’ times as I want. Oh and I might win a Mötley Crüe mirror. I think that you should take it seriously, that thing that you love and something valid that makes you feel great, but there’s so much humor in heavy metal.

What were some of the other live shows you saw and loved?

I didn’t really get to see any of the stadium bands because I was too poor, so while everybody was going to see that stuff, I had to wait till I was a little bit older and see bands like Death Angel. I saw Metallica a couple times. I saw Voivod a lot. I saw all those crossover metal bands—anything that was going on in the early ’90s that I could go to in the Pacific Northwest. A lot of the shows would be in backwater areas, not exactly suburbs—they were too gnarly to be considered suburbs. You’d go to these veterans’ halls out in the middle of nowhere, literally, and suddenly there’d be 450 people there. A recipe for disaster sometimes, but also some of the greatest times I ever had in my life. I went and saw Iron Maiden a year-and-a-half ago and it was fucking awesome. And Alice Cooper opened, and I did not know he was opening. “Oh my God, he’s doing ‘Billion Dollar Babies’!???” I basically spewed out of all of my orifices like a freaked-out teenager.

NICE. So do you keep up with the current state of heavy metal?

Not as much. I don’t like Cookie Monster singing, but I also don’t keep up with modern country, either, only because I’m so busy all the time. I’m behind. It’s not for not wanting to but more for being just out of the loop. Not on purpose, but not by accident only because I’m so caught up in what I’m doing at the moment.

Well you’re a lady in demand, that’s what happens.

Right, but my love of metal will never die.

That’s right.

One thing about metal that people often don’t talk about but I’m always curious: How was there so much crazy sexism and homophobia in metal in the 80s and 90s yet people just refuse to believe that Freddie Mercury and Rob Halford were gay? Like, come on you guys, instead of being so weird about it, just go ahead and like it and let it be cool because it is! (laughs) I felt like kind of a sexist jerk, you know, when you find out that somebody came out, I would be like, “YES! YES! THANK YOU!” because I would be so stoked that somebody did something so great and just proved all these people wrong. Because as a woman wanting to play in a band—any band—I wanted to know there was a place for me and [the metal scene] was the same about women playing in bands. I felt, I didn’t know, I figured I was probably straight when I was around 14, but you don’t know those things yet, necessarily—some people do, some people don’t—but I wanted there to be a place for me. And when I was that age, a lot of my friends were coming out, and they were having a really hard time finding a place for themselves too, so it’s like, not only is there a place, but this guy [in metal who came out of the closet] just made a HUGE place! Yeah! Right on, man! Like somebody wins some victory that seems impossible, and it’s kind of a childish way to look at it, but I was a child!

Yeah but, talk about childish, look at the “adults” who are shaping the world. Who’s being childish?

I just thought the hypocrisy was amazing at the time. Like, you’re fucking kidding me, right? You’re really going to be that mad about it? Or just deny it so hard, like, “There’s no way that somebody who’s gay could rock like that!”

…could wear tight leather pants and—

That’s just insane! It’s entertainment, man! Even if it wasn’t! I remember what to me as a kid seemed like big victories really taking hold of me. I still think of those things, childishly and sexistly, in retrospect now, but man, they definitely helped push me in a direction that was way more open-minded. I’m so glad for it. My dad was totally sexist and really anti-gay. He was a huge Queen fan, but he was super-anti-gay. I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?? Come on!” It’s disrespectful to Freddie Mercury, because he wasn’t out of the closet, but I just thought, “If Freddie Mercury is gay, are you just suddenly going to not like this music that you love and I’ve heard my whole life and worshipped?” Queen are huge for me. Huge. I think I’ve gotten more from them than any other band what I want to do when I write a song.

To me, Freddie Mercury is the best rock frontperson ever.

A-men! And the outfit with the eyeballs all over it, with the Rockabilly hairdo? That guy is like, oh, just seeing that guy just owning that shit and sticking his crotch out and sticking his fists in the air?? That was freedom to me. Yeah! Oh, and the most beautiful, blood-curdling, tear-inducing harmonies I’ve ever heard. Oh, and here comes the piano! I have some really nerdy moments online checking out what [Queen producer] Roy Thomas Baker had to say on Twitter. Even the producer makes me totally nerd out! Oh metal! Gave us more than we know!