Uncovering Peter Case: The Rocks Off Interview

"I was always sort of not interested in what my generation was doing," Peter Case told Rocks Off 10 years ago after flipping through Louvin Bros. compact discs at a now-defunct bookstore in Sugar Land, surrounded by car dealerships, business parks and seamless lawns. As bass player for proto-punks The Nerves ("Hangin' On the Telephone") and singer/guitarist of the Plimsouls ("A Million Miles Away") during the 1970s and '80s, he embodied hook-filled, intelligent power-pop.

Subsequently, Case's solo career earnestly took off in 1986, and has spawned an unmatched catalog of rootsy singer-songwriter material much coveted by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Robert Earl Keen.

Currently, his new effort The Case Files represents some under-the-radar live tunes, demo tracks and other rare material.

Rocks Off: When assembling the tracks for the record, how did you perceive some of the songs, like the 1986 demos, the first of your solo career?

Peter Case: I got both of those down in the right way, and when that happens songs become sort of timeless for me. Sometimes it's not like that, and I hear a problem with a song years later, but I feel both of those are gettin' it done, no problem, and seems like no time at all has passed. Some people say the later songs are darker, but I can't see it.

RO: You grew up like a teenage Yippie, but over the last ten years, your songs teem with a sharpened sense of politics too -- was it the Bush years, or the overall drift of the country?

PC: I was unpolitical for a spell, and even though I sympathized with international and U.S. social justice movements, etc., those were sort of my drunk rock and roll years. Then, the Iran-Contra affair was a drag. And there was a huge homeless problem in the U.S.

These got my attention. When Bush senior ran, and when they impeached Clinton, that all really bugged me. That was the start of the renewed political awareness that re-ignited it.

RO: Although the record does contain much variety, it doesn't contain many live tracks or much from the Vanguard years, like demos from those popular songs. Why?

PC: There will be an album of new performances of my songs from the 1990s (aka the Vanguard years) coming soon. There are demos from that period, of many unreleased songs, and maybe they will be part of the next archive release. Dunno yet, and my first live album is coming soon.

RO: With your songwriting workshop, ongoing blogs, memoir, and continuous cache of songs, you offer fans a deep look into your creative process. Does this stem from a Beat Generation candid kind of approach, or something else?

PC: I grew up on the Beats, especially the work of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. They were very open about their selves and the process they used to write. So, I like that, but it's dangerous to speak too openly too often about songwriting; there are secrets that need to remain in the shadows.

Where the real songs come from is a mystery. And just because you call it a song doesn't make it one. Songs communicate on a higher plane, and no one really knows how that happens.

RO: The Case Files features gems by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Al Escovedo, but what songs compel you right now that might surprise us?

I'm listening to the first LP by Bridget St. John, on Dandelion records. I heard it last month over in Glasgow, and it's my favorite record right now. It's just her and John Martyn. I dig Edith Piaf's greatest hits. Mose Allison's songs - I dig his attitude. And John Coltrane's work: His struggle to be a real voice is something I relate to. He's on the turntable a lot.

Hendrix's songwriting is underrated. He's one of the greats, when he hits it. Early Duke Ellington records; I dig the tone of the band. And the songwriting of Robert Wilkins, also the Mississippi Sheiks, reminds me of my band the Nerves' early work, though that's hard to explain. But there is a similarity I feel.

Of the current crop of songwriters, I feel Mary Gauthier is the best thing going. She writes songs that make a beeline straight for the fault lines. Chris Smither has a great original style I really dig, combining blues with some wigged-out wisdom.

Peter Case plays with Steve Poltz, 7:30 p.m. tonight at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-528-5999. Case also plays a free in-store at 5 p.m. at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth.

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