Power pop turns folkie—a chat with Peter Case
In 1975 Jack Lee, Paul Collins and Peter Case formed the short-lived but influential power pop group The Nerves. Most notably, the band is responsible for the classic track "Hanging on the Telephone," later made famous by Blondie. The group also had a hand in founding the West Coast punk scene—but just as the cultural explosion got its footing in L.A., The Nerves split in 1978. Collins and Case formed The Breakaways, and Lee went solo. Case went on to find success as the frontman for The Plimsouls, but by the mid-’80s that band dissolved and Case returned to his solo roots.
At 15 the Buffalo native had left school to travel around the U.S. and by the early ‘70s found himself performing on the streets of San Francisco. After more than a decade playing with bands in the punk and power pop scene, he went back to folk rock. Acclaimed as a singer-songwriter for the last quarter-
How do you remember the very early West Coast punk shows you were involved with?
You know, when The Nerves first started playing, it hadn't started yet. So we'd look around and say, Where is everybody our age? It just didn't seem like they were around. Then there were a few signs of life, and we started putting on these shows. [The lineups] would be, like, The Nerves, The Weirdos, The Zeros and The Germs. And there would be about 100 people there, but they would all be people who were really into music. That was the thing about it: They knew what was happening and were really excited to be part of it. There's not too many big breakthrough moments in music like that, but it was one of them. ... People took art back into their own hands. None of the bands that played in the beginning of the punk rock shows were with record companies. Everybody was doing their own thing because the companies weren't interested.
Some refer to you as a musicologist—do you agree with that?
I don't hang a shingle up in front of my house—“Peter Case, Musicologist." I curated a show a The Getty—that's when somebody started calling me that—and I put together the Mississippi John Hurt tribute record. If I am a musicologist, it's somebody else's term, not mine. I love music and I listen in detail—if that makes me a musicologist, that's cool.
So it's just a tag that some random person gave you?
Exactly. I wish I knew who that was. Everybody says that now because it's on Wikipedia, but believe me, I don't really know what a musicologist is. What's a mixologist? Makes drinks—used to be called a bartender. Musicology—I think is just being a fan of music.
A musicologist could be anyone then, huh?
If you know what song's on the B-side and who played bass, maybe then you're a musicologist. [Laughs.]
You teach music, right?
I teach songwriting—I've been doing that for about 10 years. I had little kids, so I couldn't go on the road all year-round and make a living like that, so I had to have another way to do it. I started teaching songwriting, [then] I found out you couldn't teach songwriting, and that set me back for a minute. What I do is help people with their problems when they get hung up. I've been pretty successful. People come back and take my class over and over again. I do it between tours and stuff.
Do your kids play music?
They do. Everybody kind of goofs around. My son's really good at music. He used to go on the road with me in the ’90s, but he's got his own thing going on now. He's in New York City. And I've got two daughters, and they don't really play music, they're both into art, but they do different art than I do.
What's your latest musical obsession?
Big Joe Williams—he wrote "Baby Please Don't Go," a song covered by Van Morrison, Ted Nugent; everybody and their mother did that song, but he wrote it a long time ago. He's an amazing character—his lyrics are really far out. I mean, I hate new blues where every lyric is "My baby left me," and all of that stuff. It's corny. He wrote the old kind of blues, which is real soulful, insane poetry. He played electric guitar—and everybody in the world plays a six- or 12-string guitar—but Big Joe Williams played a nine-string guitar. He's the only guy who has ever played one, and he made it himself. It's just incredible the way it sounds—like a weird combination of electric blues and African music. He did all this stuff to make his music sound weird. He'd take a pie plate and hammer it to the amp and drape these chains over the pie plate so it would vibrate in this really weird way—he's incredible.
Of musicians and bands who are active right now, is there anything that inspires you?
Oh, yeah, I dig The Black Keys a lot. James Blackshaw—he's an English guy, really far out. He plays instrumentals, but he's really cool. I hear different things at different times I really like. I dug all those bands like Mr. Airplane Man, The Black Keys and The White Stripes—that whole kind of blues explosion that happened a few years ago, the garage thing. I really dug it. Outside of that it's hard to say—I like Hacienda. Or, actually, The Haciendas, right?
I think it's just Hacienda.
Is it Hacienda? I call every band a The with an S on the end because I'm old. [Laughs.] I like The Haciendas. I like the Buffalo Killers. I'll tell you who I really like—he's a young cat, and he's up in Minneapolis now—but he's originally from Memphis. His name's Ron Franklin, and he's got a band called Gasoline Silver—it's really cool.
What was it like transitioning from this revered power pop musician to a folk-rock singer-songwriter?
It was kind of natural, because before I was in The Nerves I was playing in the street and I was already doing that whole thing in the first place. When I met Jack Lee, I was out in the street, and I was playing blues. ... The biggest change, though, after being in a band, was not having a band anymore. I felt real lonesome. I'd been alone before, but it'd been a number of years.
So you still play with Paul Collins—could The Nerves or The Breakaways ever have a reunion?
The Breakaways could have one. It's hard for The Nerves because there's just problems. I can't really go into it. I don't think The Nerves are ever going to get back together again. Unless there's a miracle, which of course could happen. But The Breakaways is basically The Nerves without Jack, and that could definitely happen. I really like working with Paul, he's a super positive guy, and he's great to work with.
What do you want folks to know about Wig!?
It was done on real tape as opposed to digital. It was really fun to make and I think you can hear it in the result.
So it was completely recorded in analog?
Yeah, it was all done on two-inch tape in Downtown L.A. on a Tuesday between 11 a.m. and midnight, where we cut 10 songs. We just cut it live, with live vocals. There's not one fixed note on the whole record. We didn't use any digital effects; it's all analog effects.
Why is that aesthetic important to you?
Because I feel like it sounds best, for one thing. It started to seem to me—I had a year to think about it because I was off the road just sitting around listening to these old records I love, listening to vinyl and listening to tapes—if it doesn't go to tape at some point in the process, it's almost like it didn't even happen. ... It's like it does something to the music, something good. All of a sudden it starts to sound like a record, like the bass sounded real cool on the tape the way it got tape compression. That doesn't happen when you do it digitally—you don't get that kick.