Peter Case :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Peter Case might have made his name with the speedy rock trio The Nerves and the chiming Plimsouls, but he’s spent much of the last handful of decades following his muse into unexpected territory. His latest albums, Doctor Moan and The Midnight Broadcast, speak to his breadth, drawing deeply from blues and jazz—harkening back to classic works like his 1986 solo debut, which was crafted with T-Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom, and featured a stacked cast of collaborators including guitarist Mike Campbell, John Hiatt, Jim Keltner and Jerry Marotta, Roger Mcguinn, Van Dyke Parks, and Victoria Williams. All along, Case has been interested in chasing songs in a very classic and rooted sense, and he’s keen to see where they might lead him—no matter how shadowy the terrain. Aquarium Drunkard rang Case earlier this year to discuss. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: How did it feel to be out on the road after so much forced time off? 

Peter Case: It felt good. It’s been three years. I used to spend a lot of time out on the road. It was exciting. I love playing for people and so I got to do that every night. I had a good time, actually.

AD: I’ve really enjoyed listening to the latest record, Doctor Moan. I especially like “Downtown Nowhere’s Blues.” Were you playing stuff from the new record out on the road for the most part?

Peter Case: Yeah, I certainly was. I was playing a lot of songs from the new record, especially “Have You Ever Been In Trouble,” “Downtown Nowhere’s Blues,” “Girl In Love With A Shadow,” “Flying Crow,” “Five Minutes More.” I played all that stuff.

AD: Did “Wandering Days” make it into the set at all?

Peter Case: No, it didn’t. That’s the one that I don’t really know how to play. I mean I know how to play it, but I’ve never played it live anywhere. I love that track, though.

AD: That one feels like The Kinks to me.

Peter Case: Well, you know what it is, man? The first song I ever learned how to play on guitar was “A Well Respected Man,” from this kid in fifth grade. That’s the same chords, but they’re a different melody. Everything’s different about it, but maybe that’s why it gives it a Kinksian feel. 

AD: Some of the first chord progressions you learn, they get embedded into your consciousness.

Peter Case: That’s a classic chord progression. It’s also the chord progression to “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” by The Seeds and “Great Big World” by The Plimsouls. You go through the chord progressions and hit them different ways. The blues is the same chord progression, supposedly, yet it’s always different. The same with a lot of those other chord progressions. They just haven’t been named anything yet, but they’re building blocks of music that don’t go away. They just continue to grow, you know? They’re beautiful.

AD: I also spent a lot of time listening to your 2021 record, The Midnight Broadcast. I really dug that one, and I especially liked Ross Johnson, Memphis music underground legend, as the DJ, that sort of phantasmagoric late-night DJ.

Peter Case: Yeah, he’s great.

AD: Here at Aquarium Drunkard we’re all fascinated by the concept of the radio and of the broadcast. We named our podcast Transmissions, and we’re not afraid to sort of evoke radiophonic signifiers, so I was psyched when I heard that you had done that, and I wondered if you could tell me about that sort of romance of growing up with radio.

Peter Case: Oh, I loved radio, and that’s really what that record was all about. It’s a tribute to radio. When I was a little kid, I had a transistor radio. I would get in bed, when I was supposed to go to sleep, and listen to the transistor radio under the covers. You could just sit there and tune in all kinds of crazy stuff. Not only just music, but I remember hearing Sonny Liston fighting Floyd Patterson live on the radio. It was an outrage, you know? In the middle of the night like, “Oh, my God!” I was probably seven or something. I got into listening to boxing, and then I listened to Cassius Clay, as they called Muhammed Ali back then, and he was fighting Sonny Liston, and it was that fight that lasted like two minutes, and everybody’s screaming and yelling. It was so dynamic to hear it on the radio.

Buffalo had an incredible 50,000 watt station that was famous for breaking rock & roll. They had this guy called The Hound Dog over there, really insane late-night DJs over there that would just do these surrealistic explosions of voices, music, yelling, and exhortations, and in a way that’s kind of what we’re getting at with The Midnight Broadcast. Before The Beatles—I experienced some radio before then—the radio was so wild. It would be all different kinds of music. I remember hearing “(Hang Down Your Head) Tom Dooley,” this really intense folk song about death, and then the next song would be The Fendermen playing “Mule Skinner Blues,” this really goofy song, and then the next song would be “Theme from ‘A Summer Place,’” or “The Stripper,” and then “Wheels.” It would be all these crazy records, you know? “Sink the Bismarck” by Johnny Horton, then a new record from the latest Elvis movie or something It was so off the wall.

AD: And late night, it all takes on a different feel.

Peter Case: Let me tell you a story. Back in the ’90s, I went over to France to play a rock festival in Lyon. They flew me over there to play a rock festival and I needed the money—I was completely broke. They got me a ticket, and I flew to Paris, and somehow I got down to Lyon. I went into this big tent and there were thousands of people in there, mostly kids, French rock fans, you know, it’s a special breed. I went out there to cheers of “Le Nerves!” “Le Plimsouls!” all this stuff. I played my show, and it went really good. After, the French promoters, they don’t give a flip. They hand me my check, then, “bye-bye.”  

It’s Saturday night, Sunday morning in France. I’m broke. I have a check. I don’t have a place to stay. I don’t have any food. Everybody’s left. So I leave the dressing room and start walking down this road, where somebody told me there was a hotel. I go into the hotel and ask if I can pay with this check and they say, “Oh no, no, no.”

I’m 3,000, 5,000 miles away from home. I’m broke, I’m hungry, nobody knows me, I don’t speak French, and I can’t cash a check. So I’m walking down the road. It’s the middle of the night. I’ve gone to a couple hotels, everybody’s [denying me]. I don’t know where I’m going, and this Citroën goes by with a bunch of French teenagers in it, and they pull over, shouting “Peter Case!” They say, “Come on,” and figure, “I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know where they’re going, but I’m just gonna get in.” I don’t care. So, I get in the car and we take off. I don’t know where, these guys are just joyriding. And I’m sitting there and there’s a song on the radio that I’d heard before, something about “Keep Rockin’ in the Free World.” I go, “This is the best fuckin’ song I’ve ever heard in my life, man!” It sounded so good, man. That’s what I mean about radio. A lot of times, you hear things and where you hear it and how it hits you sideways. You put out these albums and reviewers and people, and sometimes there’s just so much noise out there that for a record to really hit people, it really takes some magic. And radio can provide that. That’s what that record was, a tribute to that.

AD: In the early days, with The Nerves and with The Plimsouls, when you guys were driving home after shows or on tour, was the radio also a big part of the scene?

Peter Case: Oh, yeah. Back then, in the summer of ‘77, I’ll tell you what [the Nerves] listened to. We were out on the road opening shows for the Ramones and for Willy DeVille. We played shows with Devo and Pere Ubu. Before anybody even knew who they were, they opened shows for us in Cleveland. We were driving all around the United States, and what was on the radio was the weirdest radio, but we just played radio because you would have to. It’d be like, is that song called “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac? That would be on. And then “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” was on the radio.

AD: I’m wearing a Blue Öyster Cult shirt.

Peter Case: Oh, there you go right there! I mean, that was one of the good songs on the radio. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” “Black Betty” bam-ba-lam, you know that track?

AD: By Ram Jam.

Peter Case: It was like, “Oh great, they’re playing Ram Jam!” I mean those were the good songs on the radio, but Boz Scaggs had a record that was pretty good, “Lido Shuffle.” I remember Bowie came out that year with “Sound and Vision.” One thing that was disappointing was, we were on tour with the Ramones for the Rocket to Russia tour for a while, for a certain number of dates. We thought the Ramones were gonna be like The Beatles from that record. I thought they were just gonna go through the roof. Those records were hit records.

“Rockaway Beach” and especially “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” Those records were so beautiful. They were everything. They were like heavy Beach Boys, but like New York girl groups, meet The Beach Boys, meet heavy rock, meet The Stooges or something. We were really disappointed in radio for not playing the Ramones, and that’s when you knew that everything was kind of false. But that was the stuff that was on the radio in ‘77, when we were out there driving around.

AD: Your discography has some of that blending too; you grew up playing folk and R&B, and then there’s power pop, punk, country blues, all that stuff, but there’s a through line—just like The Ramones, it’s all about proper songs.

Peter Case: The Ramones, The Nerves—there wasn’t any “punk rock” or “power pop” by name at that point. It was ‘74, and what [The Nerves] wanted to do was something completely different. We didn’t want to have guitar solos. We wanted it to be really minimal. We wanted the songs and the singing to be the thing. We liked teenage music, like we considered all that ’60s garage music, and we wanted to do something really teenage and just really rock & roll, man. So we were learning how to write songs for a band and be in a band and all that kind of thing, and so it was kind of power pop, but not like what became known as—like we didn’t know anything about Big Star or anything like that. We didn’t know about the Flamin’ Groovies until after our record was out, though they were probably the closest, I think, to our sensibility. We loved Motown and we loved really stripped-down music, and when we heard the Ramones—we were already completely formed by the time we heard the Ramones—but we thought they were kindred with us because they were playing fast eighth note pop music, you know? That’s how crazy we were. We thought The Nerves were gonna come out and play Shea Stadium, man.

We thought “Hanging on the Telephone” was gonna be huge. Of course, it was huge for Blondie, but we didn’t play that great. We were just starting out, and so when The Nerves broke up, I decided I wanted to have a band that did songs like The Nerves because we were really into the songwriting and the singing, and we were good at it, but I wanted to have a band that could rock the house and blow the roof off the place with that kind of material, but also have a band that could really rock a house, and that’s what we did with The Plimsouls.

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