Jon Rauhouse: On the Road with Neko

Multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse has been playing alongside Neko Case for two decades, whether it be sliding on the pedal steel, twanging a banjo, or providing a backdrop with his 12-string electric. Here he shares his philosophy on contributing to the complex orchestration on Hell-On, and then translating it to a live setting.

What are the challenges of bringing a record with big arrangements like those on Hell-Onto life on the road?
You have to pick an instrument and find a part that works in the spirit of what’s going on in any given song, which can be tough because there’s almost 50 musicians on the record and tons of parts. You can’t play exactly the part you played or exactly the part someone else played, so you have to make up an amalgam of what’s going on to make the songs really work live. Everyone in the band has to do that. Some of these songs double up drummers—there’s a lot of random percussion—but we’re touring with one drummer, and he has to find a part that works in a way that’s recognizable as that song live. It’s the same thing for me: I have to find a hook or something that’s more recognizable than a strict part. I’m playing a lot of electric guitar and 12-string stuff on the new songs live.

Your electric 12-string playing is very effective as an atmospheric device.
It is, but I think almost everythinganyone does in Neko’s music is atmospheric in a way, because it’s really all about her singing, you know? I’ve been with Neko almost 20 years now and it’s always been more of a task to get out of the way of her voice than anything. Even when I listen to her records, I don’t want to hear people wanking—I want to hear her singing. So it’s all about atmosphere. The 12-string is really good for that, especially simple, first-position fingerpicking things. That lush underlayer tends to work really well with her thing, and the same goes for the steel guitar.I use a delay or an Echoplex, and I like to use a Leslie speaker a lot with the steel. I try to keep it sparse and not get in the way, because there’s always big vocal harmonies, and Neko’s own lead harmony, and my goal is to create a bed to keep things floating on.

Which steel guitar do prefer when you play with Neko?
My touring steel, and what I use in general, is a mid-’70s MSA single-neck 10-string Pro model with three pedals and four knee levers, in E9 tuning. I love that era of MSA because the pickups sound really great. They break up just a little bit, so I don’t need an overdrive pedal unless I want a full-on fuzz tone. I can just turn the amp up a bit and get a really cool overdrive out of those old pickups.

What do you think it is about you and Paul Rigby that works so well together?
I’m always saying if we’re going to do something, let’s do something together! We always work as a team. A lot of that comes into reallythinking about what your part is as it applies to their part, and then coming together during rehearsal and trying to layer things with one another. That comes from having respect for whoever you’re playing with. I’m always really clear about the part I’m going to be playing. Like, I have a banjo solo on the song “Maybe Sparrow” [off Case’s 2006 album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood], and I’m always asking Paul to play it with me. I know it doesn’t sound the same, but I’m a big fan of Thin Lizzy and the Allman Brothers and that type of stuff, and I think that if you can find someone to play a cool part withyou, it’s way more satisfying. Paul really helps with that. And it’s more fun!

Your career as a sideman is rather illustrious, with Neko and otherwise. Do you have any advice for players interested in playing that role or becoming a more universally useful player?
The first bit of advice I give everybody is to play as much as you can, with as many people as you can. Even if you sit down with somebody that technically isn’t as good a player as you, or possibly not as strong a songwriter as someone else, you will always learn something from them. I do, at least. If I sit in with someone, they’re almost always doing things different from someone else, and you can pick great things up that way. Also, don’t play for free—because, for fuck’s sake, that’s killing us all! But I say play as many gigs and as much as you possibly can.

The other thing is to really try to be as versatile as you can. Pick up different styles, pick up different instruments. I guarantee one of the reasons I’ve done a lot that I’ve done is because I can play so many different instruments. If you look at my Instagram page, my station with Case sometimes has a pedal steel, a banjo, an archtop guitar, a resonator, a 12-string, and a trombone. I know a lot of people want to travel lighter and mimic some of that stuff with pedals, but to my ears nothing can replace a real instrument. And be willing to do weird stuff! One thing I did with Neko early on was put a banjo through a [Fender] Vibrolux, with a really big delay on it. It sounded so odd, but so cool. You have to be willing to try things that aren’t expected. You have to be versatile andwilling to try a lot of things.