Since his days fronting Los Angeles power-pop band the Plimsouls in the early ’80s and on through two decades’worth of albums as a solo artist, Peter Case has long been established as one of the foremost troubadours in American roots music. His blend of folk, blues, rock, country, jazz and other styles is seamless, which reflects his lifelong relationship with those forms. “When I was a kid, I loved rock & roll music,” he explains, “but what that means to me is all this stuff. To me, it always seemed like the same thing.”
The past two years have been especially active for Case. He was the subject of a three-disc tribute album called A Case for Case in 2006, and also recently published a short book (As Far as You Can Get Without a Passport (Everthemore Books, 2007) that’s intended to be the first installment of his memoirs. In August 2007, Yep Roc Records released Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, the closest thing to a truly solo record Case has ever done.
eMusic: The past couple years seem like a culmination of things that may have been a long time coming for you, with the tribute album and the book. Does it feel that way?
Peter Case: It’s weird, the things that have happened have actually been sort of unexpected for me….The tribute thing that Hungry For Music did was completely out of left field. That was great because I didn’t have any records out, and they put out a record for me. It was actually pretty mind-boggling, to tell you the truth.
Some of the people I’d never met before and they were just great. Like Pieta Brown — I loved her version of that song ["Spell of Wheels"]. Some of the songs, people took them and they twisted them. That was my favorite part of it…. Jesse DeNatale did that too [on "I Hear Your Voice"]. They bring out an aspect of the song that was like, you want to learn the song back off the record. Dave Alvin, for that matter, cut ["On My Way Downtown"] in a way that I hadn’t cut the song. It was really, really cool.
eMusic: You’d produced a tribute record yourself, for Mississippi John Hurt, a few years back. Was that something you had wanted to do for a long time?
PC: Yeah, I got into him when I was a kid, back on the east coast. I just loved Misissippi John Hurt. So I carried that with me for a really long time. And then when I finally landed on Vanguard, which was his label, I brought up the idea one day with the guy over there — you know, “Why don’t you guys do that, you ought to do a tribute record to John Hurt.” And he says, ‘Well, OK, you do it, and I’ll put it out.” So I just did it… It was a great feeling to make that record, because there’s something about his music, and what he stood for. He was very positive, he had a very soulful thing going on.
eMusic: So how did you end up writing the book that came out recently?
I went through a period when I was sorta between agents, between record companies, between gigs — I think that’s called unemployed. I guess that was about a year ago. It didn’t last long, but in that period, I wrote that book. I had some gigs coming up, but I didn’t have anything going on; I was just sorta like dead in the water sitting around, and I just started writing every night. You know, that book is stories that have been in my head and I’ve told to people in bars, just going around in my mind for a long time. But I never really thought I’d be able to write it… And then it just happened, you know. I really loved doing that, though. So, I’m writing this other part of it, and I think we’re going to put another one out.
eMusic: You’ve toured extensively as a solo performer, but you’d never really made an album focusing on that approach. What made you decide to do this one that way?
PC: Something I really always wanted to do was just a completely solo record. Like what I do live, but people always come up to me when I play live and say, “Which one sounds like what you just did?” And a lot of fans wanted that. And I had that record Sings Like Hell, and another one called Thank You St. Jude, but those were both like covers and old songs and stuff. I’d never done a record of all new songs the way I just do them live.
And [producer] Ian Brennan and I hooked up — which, it sounds weird to have a producer on a record like this, but in a weird way, a record like this is the one I most need a producer for. Because, just playing solo, you could just keep going forever, or just throw the whole thing away. From my point of view, it’s so kinda close to the bone that I needed an outside head to deal with it. And so Ian had produced that record with Ramblin’Jack [Elliott, 2006's I Stand Alone], you know. So he was already thinking on that kind of level of solo performance.
The thing about the solo record is, it was done with intent. That’s the difference between just making guitar demos and stuff. Because I had a bunch of guitar demos of these songs, but when you really go in with an intent to have the whole thing just be your performance and that’s going to be your record, it’s a different thing, really.
eMusic: It did seem surprising that you’d never done a record like this before.
PC: Yeah, I know. When I first went solo on Geffen, when I went and did that with T-Bone [Burnett, in 1986], my original idea was to do that — just make a completely solo record. But the albums battle you. And I like recording stuff with a band, you know. And on that record with T-Bone, he’s like, “Well, we’ll bring in Roger McGuinn,” and, OK! And, “We’ll get Jim Keltner,” and, OK, that sounds great! And then, you know, David Hidalgo and different people would come in.
And the last thing in the world most record companies want you to do is one of these kind of records [solo], for some reason. And, strangely enough, that’s, like, my favorite thing. What I really like listening to is Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell — that’s what I listen to on the road, stuff like that. I really just love that. Or if I’m going to listen to jazz, I’ll listen to Monk playing alone. I mean, I like all music, but I really like that.
eMusic: When you went in to do that first record with T-Bone in 1986, did that grow out of you having played totally solo gigs?
PC: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. As soon as I left the Plimsouls, I went completely solo. That would be 1984. The reason I was able to do that is, I was doing that before I was in the Nerves [Case's late-'70s punk band]. And so, for me, it was like picking up where I’d left off. I did it before I dropped out of high school and I was back in Buffalo, and then I did it when I was on the street. I started playing solo gigs when I was like 14, you know.
eMusic: On the song “Hidden Love” from your 1989 album Blue Guitar, there’s that line, “In these empty rooms a guitar makes a band.”
PC: It’s true, you know. That’s the idea on this new record, the guitar makes a band. I’ve always felt that… I remember talking to Jesse Winchester once, and he was like, “I really had a great band, man, and we played all over the place — and people come up to you after the show and go, ‘That was a great band.’And he’s sorta saying it like that’s the last thing he wanted to hear, because he’s trying to put across these stories, these songs, you know — what do I care if I have a great band? He’s such a great songwriter, right?
So it’s stripped-down like that, and I love playing like that, and the freedom of playing like that. When I go on the road, it’s like a whole different thing. I used to be in a band, you know, and there’s not this huge insulating wall of noise between you and the audience, or between you and just the world you’re passing through as you travel.
eMusic: That said, you’ve done some reunion shows and even a record with the Plimsouls in recent years. Do you still expect to do that from time to time into the future?
PC: Yeah. We’re still together, you know. We started playing again a couple years ago; we did a big gig with X, we played this huge gig out here for like 10,000 people, the Plimsouls and X, and everybody stood up and sang “A Million Miles Away” at the end of our set. It was unbelievable. I was like, “I should be doing this every night!” But that was more of a once-in-a-decade kind of show.
But since then, we’ve been playing; we do shows as much as we can. One of the guys is a pyrotechnician, David Pahoa, he works for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and all these guys, doing pyrotechnical things, blowing up cars and stuff. They build ramps and drive cars off ‘em, and burn houses down….And then Eddie [Munoz], the guitar player, he’s in animation. So both those guys are pretty busy in the film world. And I’m playing solo on the road all the time, and then Bryan [Head] is playing drums for John Doe now. So we’re all spread around. But whenever we can, we do it. It’s really fun; it’s great to have the Plimsouls.
It’s weird though — people don’t really want a new Plimsouls record. The Plimsouls fans just seem like they want the old songs; they don’t really get attached to the new ones… There’s people that come to the gigs and when we play one of those songs from that period, I can look out in the audience and all these lights go on from people’s cell phones. They want to film the Plimsouls doing those songs.
eMusic: This record’s pretty dark in its themes, and you could make a case that it’s politically relevant and timely. Did you intend it that way, or do you see its observations more as constants in society?
PC: Well, you know, you’ve gotta weigh in on everything anymore, because everything’s just been so screwed up. So, yeah, it was on purpose. And I spent a lot of time in the last five years just writing a buncha “I hate Bush” kinda songs, or “Bush is a moron,” and all. Those songs, there was a point to them, but on the other hand, a lot of times you’d write them and you’d play ‘em once, and then you felt kind of impotent with ‘em, like they just weren’t really that powerful. You want to have a song that really can pack some sort of heat when they’re talking about their subjects. Some people have really done that good, but what I was trying here to do was really working right into the insides of everything I’m saying, so that it’s just there all the time.
You know, it’s a very dark time. Everybody’s angry — it can consume you, and your work. That’s the kind of time it is. But, like I was saying there for awhile, whenever the Republicans are in power, it’s really good for folk music! But, you know, I’m afraid that the Democrats aren’t any better.