Peter Case: Ex-Plimsoul Heads Back to San Francisco's Beatnik Nights

Old-school punk impresario, power-pop godfather, and singer-songwriter extraordinaire Peter Case (The Nerves, The Plimsouls) continues to thrive on the weary road, armed with a sense of honesty and history in the newfangled digital era. Rocks Off spoke with him recently before he arrives in Houston next week.

Rocks Off: The "reunited" Nerves/Breakaways tour seemed fraught with both positive and negative energy. Do you feel that material, really a cornerstone of 1970s new/punk music, retains its cultural potency?

Peter Case: Judging by the response in the clubs, I'd say yes. The gigs were packed, the audiences were all ages, from geezers to teens, and they were all extremely enthusiastic. The audience average age at a few was 19, and they knew all the songs...It really took me by surprise, though I knew people were into it. It may even have more "cultural potency' than ever. It's hard to say, and I don't claim to understand it.

RO: You just toured Europe: does it feel like a both a culture and economy in decline, Americanized, or as vibrant and distinct as ever?

Europe is Americanized - corporate, but they do have their own way of looking at things. France is still France, maintains its cultural identity, same with the United Kingdom. But in many ways, Europe and America are similar. Everywhere the past is receding, and the present happens along mostly digital and corporate lines. Except for the people like me, the outlaws.

I love playing over there, travelogs, and meeting the people. The populations are diverse, and there are large gaps everywhere between the cultures of the rich and poor. This means that the context is questionable everywhere. There's a lot of information, but what good is it without context? That's everybody's predicament.

RO: Tell me about the work you have been producing. Do you enjoy that role behind the mixing board, and why?

I like making records and I know how to do it, pretty much... though it's always different too. It's just another way of making music. I like it if I like the songs.

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And after all these years, I know a bit about how to leave the feeling, not messing with it too much. Producing is a way of helping out, giving back in an area I feel stronger in...I had a lot of good teachers in this area, like T-Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom. I've worked with a lot of swell producers and picked up something from everybody.

RO: For the first time in decades, you've settled in the San Francisco area. Does it feel like a return to your California roots, like stepping into the city after leaving Buffalo in the 1970s?

PC: I love San Francisco, always have. I went to L.A. to make records, in 1977, and since then I've made over 20 albums. L.A.'s cool, but the scene that made it exciting to live there is long gone, and there's a new thing to be done here. That's all I'm gonna say.

L.A. is show business, San Francisco is the Beats. In this era we live in, the relevance of the Beats again is obvious, in a good way, and necessary. Anyhow, I just dig it here, and the time was right for a move.

RO: The whole infrastructure and dynamics of the music industry seems in upheaval. How do you feel about the present state of affairs -- is it a time of DIY start-ups and new-media reinvention, or a hard-bitten, confusing time?

PC: Both. It's hard to make it on your own, but it's the only way now. Imagination is the polar star now. There's no limit on how much good be made and done now out of the mainstream's bright drying lights. People are struggling just to make bills, but pain can open up the heart too. We'll see.

RO: While on the road recently, what writers and songwriters have made the most sense to you?

PC: Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Robert Johnson. Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. Furry Lewis. A good one is "Dead or Alive" by Ramblin' Jack Elliott. "Bad Man Ballad" by Cisco Houston. That was a hit in the '50s, you know.

In terms of new records, Bob Dylan's new one has a couple good ones. I like Tom Russell again, though I haven't really followed him for years. He's good. Dave Alvin, too.

My favorite right now is Sam Chatmon, one of the Mississippi Sheiks. You can see him perform "Who's Gonna Love You Tonight?" on YouTube. I recommend it.

Peter Case performs at McGonigel's Mucky Duck Tuesday, November 13, and will read from his book Epistolary Rex at Cactus Music Friday, November 16.

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