Casey Neill isn't that old. He will tell you so himself. "Still a pup," he joked in a recent email exchange with the Source. But at 43, Neill has become a recognizable and well respected, collaborative musician in the Portland music scene. Solo, and under the guise of the Norway Rats, he has worked with Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists, Chet Lyster of the Eels, Jesse Emerson of Amelia, Matt Brown of Storm Large and a long, prestigious list of others. He also frequents as lead guitarist of Peter Buck's band, The Minus 5 (yes, THE Peter Buck of R.E.M.), and he has busked with Pete Seeger.
"You start seeing press write-ups that say 'longtime singer-songwriter,' " explained Neill who got his start in the mid-'90s and has released eight studio albums to date. "Some artists make something really great when they're 23 and then spend a lot of time chasing it. For me it's been a slow burn."
Neill takes his inspiration from an amalgamation of genres from the '80s college rock he grew up on, to the folk punk idiom he started in a decade ago, as well as an obsession with Celtic folk music and post-punk. It wasn't until around 2003 that he came to terms with the path his music was truly taking.
"I was working with Johnny Cunningham—he's an Irish fiddler who has done Broadway shows and is just one of those boundless music people—he told me, 'These are all rock songs. We're pushing them into these other places, but let's treat them for what they are.'"
With age, Neill has developed an astute musical maturity. All You Pretty Vandals was released last fall and since then the Norway Rats, with a rotating lineup, have toured across the country playing 81 shows in 21 states. Neill deems the album, "junkyard rock," it's edgy and raw with train car vocals and folky melodies waltzing through the colorful backdrop of the full band. It's an album that feels cohesive, and Neill said that feeling comes from writing with the band rather than writing on his own and adding group instrumentation to his solo songs later.
"As a singer-songwriter, even if the music sounds different, everyone has these ticks, melodies they go back to, and ways they sing, and I certainly have those. Chet Lyster [and writing with the full band] is trying to get me to change that. We're building it from the ground up together. I feel like it's growing and getting better and it sounds more like I want it to," said Neill. "I've put out eight studio records, and each one gets closer to the ideal in my head of how I want it to be."
Casey Neill and the Norway Rats
7 pm. Wed., Sept. 10
McMenamins Old St. Francis, 700 NW Bond St.