For over 30 years, songwriter and guitarist Peter Case has been a key figure in the American power-pop, roots-music and neo-traditionalist folk and blues movements.
Initially gaining a modicum of fame and a ton of cult notoriety as a member of seminal L.A. bands The Nerves (“Hanging on the Telephone”) and later The Plimsouls (“Zero Hour,” “A Million Miles Away”), he walked away from the world of distorted amps and elaborate sound-checks in 1984 and struck out on his own as a solo artist — releasing a string of beautiful albums on labels big (Geffen) and small (Yep Roc).
His work is known and loved by artists from Bruce Springsteen and Joe Ely to John Prine and Bob Neuwirth (most of whom have recorded their own versions of case’s tunes), as he’s a restless musicologist who uses tradition as fuel for his seemingly undouseable creative flame.
In what’s seen by many in Savannah as a small coup, local counterculture coffee house and performance venue The Sentient Bean will present Case this weekend for an intimate solo show in support of his brand-new (and highly praised) disc Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John.
I caught up with Case by phone on tour in Arizona for a chat.
You’re in Tuscon now, correct?
Peter Case: That’s right, I played Tuscon last night and I’m heading to Phoenix in just a little while.
How did the show go?
Peter Case: Very well. I’m at a place called the Hotel Congress. The vibe here is kinda nice. There’s like, a ceiling fan and all you’ve got is a radio. In a way, you feel like you’re in a Wyatt Earp movie or something along those lines. I’ve played here before a number of times.
How many people were at the gig?
Peter Case: I’m not sure, maybe about 75 or 100.
You’ve gone through a couple of major stylistic shifts over the years. Is it difficult to decide which facet of your career to present to an audience, or do you just draw from your entire back catalog?
Peter Case: It’s not really hard these days. I’ve actually been on kinda one beam since I left The Plimsouls. With one exception, the 10 albums I’ve made have been based around me as a solo artist, and I can pull ‘em off well by myself. It’s all about a solitary performance. But now, after all this time, I finally got to make a true solo record. Just me and nothing else. After the shows, people always ask me which record sounds the most like me, and I guess that would be the new one. My theory is: the guitar makes the band. I’ve been playing shows in this style since I first went solo in ‘84. Mine is a style that’s based around Americana roots music and certain other elements.
Have you ever toured your solo material with additional musicians, just to break it up a bit and add some different colors to the show?
Peter Case: Very extremely occasionally. (laughs) In 2000, I had a fiddle player with me and in ‘92 I hit the road with a trio, so I had bass and drums, but other than that it’s just been me.
What’s most appealing to you about touring by yourself, besides the obvious financial benefits and the ease of operation?
Peter Case: A lot of my favorite music is that way. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved country blues artists like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell. I loved Lightnin’ Hopkins as a kid. That kind of music just always seemed to excite me. I loved Dylan as well, and even the English guys like Bert Jansch. Just to hear a song stripped down to the basic strength and truth. It’s not a real mellow thing. It goes from a whisper to a scream, you know? It can be as rock and roll as any full band. I always make a point to tune my guitar strings really low to get a deep, rock sound. It makes for big, dark tones like a lot of Delta blues, which frequently used alternate tunings. My music draws from different sources. From blues and from certain types of gospel and country, which is really Scottish-American music. But I also come from a rock and roll kind of place. I always thought that my solo shows were rock shows, but instead of having to listen through a band, you can get to the lyrics much more directly. I love playing this way. It was actually what I was looking for in all the bands. We got a huge audience in The Plimsouls. We’d play to like 800 or a thousand people. But when I first played for 200 people as a solo acoustic act, it reminded me of why I was into punk rock. There’s a very real sense of two-way communication. It can turn on a dime, and you can be very spontaneous as an artist. It puts you in touch with the worth of the songs, and how deep you can go emotionally into your own imagination.
Do you primarily finesse your material on the road in front of crowds, or do you work more like Dylan, where the songs are honed in private, then recorded in the studio, and finally shown to the public after the record is released?
Peter Case: Some of it is like the second approach, but then some of it is like the first. A few from the new record, like “Million Dollar Bail” and “Underneath The Stars” were played earlier on tour, but some of them like “Ain’t Gonna Worry No More” and “The Open Road Song” were first played in the studio. In fact, on a couple of those, the first time I played them was in front of the mic with tape rolling! I’d just say, “Keep the tape rolling!” and I’d do a new song. The first take of “The Open Road Song” and the only take of “Ain’t Gonna Worry No More” are on the album. I play ‘em out now, but I never did before that. The song I did with Richard Thompson, I wrote over the weekend and outside of my girlfriend, the first person I played it for was Richard! That was unnerving! (laughs) Then we did 4 or 5 takes and picked the best one. They were all completely live and different from each other. So, some was prepared and some was not. We recorded for 3 days and I must’ve done 30 to 35 songs for an 11 song album.
You’ve mentioned how much you were looking forward to doing a stark, simple acoustic guitar record in the vein of the early Sleepy John Estes sides or the first 4 Dylan LPs. In the end, did you wind up capturing the sound that was in your head when you hatched the idea, or along the way, did it morph into something else altogether?
Peter Case: I have a vision of the way I hear the guitar, but a lot of it is spontaneous. The sound is much the way I envisioned it, but often, the results go into a new and interesting place. I like to be surprised. That’s the great thing about music. It takes you to a surprise and opens a door that you didn’t even know was there. That’s why playing solo is so great! You’ve got the ability to surprise the audience, and often, even yourself. It can transcend even your own expectations.
Does your passion for writing songs intersect with your interest in writing poetry and prose —such as your new book of memoirs— or do they conflict in some way?
Peter Case: Well, I kinda feel like the book that I put out in January and this album kinda go together. But I’ve never written poetry that made it to the stage of being called poetry. Once I start to get a few poems that have great lines in them, I tend to mine them into my songs, you know? I love reading poetry, but I consider myself a songwriter. For different reasons, it keeps my feet on the ground. I guess I understand the disciplines and the mechanics, so I can allow myself to do that. In terms of the book, I actually wrote it in much the same way that I write songs. Most of the chapters were written in the middle of the night. I used to think I had insomnia, and thought I was uptight and worried about the state of the world. But what was really going on was I just wanted to write. That is rare for me. I stayed up and wrote the stories in the book as well as the songs. The prose thing didn’t seem much different from the songs themselves. If I wrote 3 words or 3,000 words, each chapter was like a clear picture in my mind. Every song seems to be about one thing and so is every chapter in my book.
You’ve done some shows lately with John Doe of X, and I know both of you guys came of age in a certain time period and scene. To many of us who weren’t there when it all happened, the whole Madame Wong’s, late ‘70s L.A. underground rock thing seems almost like a mythical world where the fates aligned to create a wonderful incubator for raw, original talent. Do you miss those days, or in a way are you glad they’re in the past?
Peter Case: I’m really glad I was there for that. It was a really exciting time. It’s a great scene and I’m still in touch with a lot of those guys — Dave Alvin, John Doe, Stan Ridgway are still great friends of mine. It’s a period I’m proud of, but at the time it was so exciting that it seemed like it would never end. I live in the present, not in the past. I’ve always been like that. I’m not a nostalgic. My book is about the past, but it’s not nostalgic. It’s meant as more of a contrast with the way things were then and the way they are now. And it’s in high contrast! All those bands were really good, but they were all really different. There was not sort of one blanket style. I don’t know, maybe I haven’t thought this through completely. I am proud of that time and that work, but I don’t long for it at all. It was different in that it was a super-intense time. People remember me from The Plimsouls and Dave Alvin from The Blasters, but all of us have done some of our best work since then, you know? We were young.
A while back you were the recipient of a wonderful 3-CD tribute album that found many of your peers —and just plain fans from a younger generation— interpreting your material. Was that a strange experience, and were you into it, or was there some trepidation on your part about being celebrated that way? I remember once when John Cale was asked what he thought of a big posthumous Warhol exhibit that prominently featured the Velvet Underground, he said it made him feel twitchy, because he didn’t see himself as being ready to be in a museum just yet.
Peter Case: Yeah, it was humbling to have all those people do your songs and it threw a lot of attention on someone like me who rarely or never does get that kind of attention. It kinda blew my mind, and some of my songs got a really great treatment. I did cop that feeling. Any artist wants to live in the present. I see Bob Dylan in concert every once in a while. I’ve seen him maybe a half dozen times or more, and there’s been a sense at some of his shows like he’s a walking museum himself. Then at other shows he just bursts alive! He’s been fighting his whole career to stay out of being locked into his own legend. Nobody wants to go there. I might have gotten a little twitchy, like Cale said. But that project was great, and it was a benefit to raise money to buy musical instruments for teenagers who needed them. That was so important to me because music was what kept me alive as a teenager. Plus, some of the people on the album were glad to have been included and to be heard alongside the other artists. I’ve been on a few tribute albums myself, so I know how that can be a cool thing to be a part of.
Is there any new Plimsouls activity on the forefront? I know you guys get back together every once in a while to play a short batch of shows, and people who’ve seen them say that you guys sound amazing.
Peter Case: I think we’ll do some stuff like that. We did a few dates a while back. We played Atlanta, Birmingham, St. Louis and Chicago. It’s really fun to go on the road with The Plimsouls. I’m thankful to do that, too. We don’t do it often and when we do, it’s great. It’s exciting and it’s a very physical thing. It keeps you young, to be able to check in with the guys every once in a while and make a great sound together. That band never had a “new wave” sound that could get real dated. It’s more just a straight-up, timeless rock and roll thing.
You’ve got a pretty elaborate website (www.petercase.com) where people can sample your music, and even read advance chapters of your forthcoming book. Has the web been particularly helpful to your solo career?
Peter Case: Definitely. I’ve got a blog that I’ve been doing for a long time. It gives you a chance to connect directly with folks everywhere who care about what you do and say. I feel like if Woody Guthrie were alive today, he’d be all over it. He’d have an incredible blog about his take on things, just like he used to write all those letters.
What’s the best thing about being Peter Case in 2007?
Peter Case: (laughs) I’m happy just to still be working, making my music and my art. I have to be thankful for the way the road’s gone — even if it is difficult at times. I think maybe I’ve made my strongest album at the age of 53, or whatever I am now. I’m still on fire with music and inspired by the things that I hear. I’m still turned on by making records and have high hopes for the next one.
Peter Case plays an ALL-AGES show 8 pm Friday at The Sentient Bean. Charlotte, N.C.’s female acoustic quintet The Near Misses open. $10 cover at the door.
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