Peter Case of The Nerves/Plimsouls, on the Blues, Powerpop and a Fixed Up Heart

Peter Case is a man with serious cred when it comes to power-pop. His '70s band The Nerves recorded the original version of "Hanging On the Telephone," which Blondie scored a hit with, and his '80s group, The Plimsouls, married Northern Soul grooves with strident, chiming melodies.

In 1986, Case embarked on a solo career, recording his self-titled debut with T. Bone Burnett. Since then, he's devoted much of his time to folk music and the blues, extolling the virtues of his heroes, John Fahey, Lightning Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes, Reverend Gary Davis, and more.

Case suffered from heart conditions in 2009, and underwent open heart surgery. He was without medical insurance, and musical friends like Burnett, Dave Alvin, Stan Ridgeway, and more banded together to help defray the costs.

Case recovered, and issued Wig! last year, a straight up rock 'n' roll record that found him teamed with DJ Bonebrake of legendary L.A. punks X. The Case Files, his newest release, is drawn from decades worth of demos, and manages to encompass nearly every side of Case's musical personality -- the poppy, the folky, and the bluesy.

Case is scheduled to perform at The Rhythm Room, Sunday, June 26. We caught up to discuss his musical past, his roots, his health, and his memoir, As Far As You Can Go Without a Passport. 

UOTS: Nice to speak with you, Peter. I'm a big fan of a lot of your work, especially The Nerves and The Plimsouls.

PC: Oh, cool.

UOTS: I quite like the acoustic stuff, as well. Your new record, The Case Files, is a collection of a bunch of previously recorded stuff, correct?

PC: Yeah. Case Files is a compilation of a number of different tracks that weren't recorded so much for albums as much as between albums. When you make it an album, you go in and you record a whole album, but these were like one-offs; kind of like, explosions of creativity that just happened for a second, between one album and another album. Some of them are experimental, or you were in a city for a different club, so that's what they are. In my opinion, it sounds like an album. I tried to take time, and pick out tracks that would actually be sympathetic to each other, and that's what happened.

UOTS: You go all over the place on it, there's folky stuff and rock 'n' roll, but it works well as an overview of the kind of music you've played over the course of your career.

PC: I think so too, man. I think so too. It's kind of covers the gamut of my music. I didn't really change my style, I just changed my instrumentation and grew as a writer. Really what we did here -- we've got powerpop, acoustic blues, rock 'n' roll, it's got all the different styles that I do.

UOTS: It's out on Alive, which is the same label that has re-released The Nerves and Plimsouls records in recent years.

PC: Sure enough. They put out the Nerves, and The Breakaways.

UOTS: Oh yeah. I got that Breakways album, it's really good.

PC: Aw man, I'm glad you got that one. It's a little under the rainbow -- er, under the radar. Uh, the name isn't familiar to people. But it's basically The Nerves with another guitar player, right after the Nerves broke up. I was pleased with that record.

UOTS: It was never issued until Alive put it out, correct? Sort of lost to time?

PC: Yeah.

UOTS: And that was you and Jack Lee?

PC: No, it was me and Paul Collins.

UOTS: Oh yeah, sometimes I forget who played drums in the Nerves.

PC: Yeah, Paul played drums [in the Nerves, and Breakaways] and I played bass, and there are a couple guitarists.

UOTS: You and Collins have both continued putting out good records. I got the last record he did, King of Power Pop, and really liked that, as well.

PC: Oh yeah, he seems pretty energetic these days.

UOTS: From an outsider's perspective, it seems like people have started to pick up on the music of The Nerves more in recent years.

PC: It's caught a younger audience. There are a lot of people who are 19 and 20 getting into the band.

UOTS: I think it has a lot to do with artists like Gentleman Jesse, and similar music in people coming out. Did you hear the record of Nerves covers that came out recently?

PC: I did, with Davilla 666... I did hear it. It's really cool.

UOTS: Any favorite track from that record?

PC: I liked their version of "Hanging on the Telephone." It's pretty cool, yeah.

A9--Davila 666--Hanging on the Te by Volar Records

UOTS: I saw Davilla a little while ago, at a bar here, and they played that. So, the record before The Case Files was Wig!, another more rock 'n' roll affair.

PC: Yeah, DJ Bonebreak, the drummer from X, played on that, with some electric guitars, me and this guy Ron Franklin. It was pretty electric, pretty rocking. Before that was a completely acoustic record, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John.

UOTS: Also a very interesting record.

PC: Yeah, I'm really proud of that record. I've always loved records like that, real kinda solo acoustic records.

UOTS: You were also on the John Fahey tribute album, I Am the Resurrection, that M. Ward produced. Which was fantastic, and interesting to have you in that mix.

PC: I've always been a big fan of his [Fahey] starting, uh, a long time ago.

UOTS: When did you get into Fahey? Was it after The Nerves?

PC: It was 1969. One of his records called Requia. It actually has the tuning on the back, a tuning I play a lot in now, C tuning. It's got the requiem of Mississippi John Hurt on that.

UOTS: So you were interested in things like that, acoustic roots, blues, American Primitive, while you were making power pop with The Nerves?

PC: Oh, way before the Nerves. I was into that, playing in coffee houses when I was 14, playing John Hurt, Lightning Hopkins, all that, in San Francisco, stuff like Reverend Gary Davis. So, yeah, way before the Nerves.

UOTS: So yeah, coming from an outsider perspective, it seems like while lots of people are catching on to the power-pop stuff, people are also catching on to the acoustic, roots blues stuff.

PC: I think that's true.

UOTS: There's labels like Mississippi Records that are releasing lots of really amazing, beautiful American music --

PC: Absolutely. They are great, [putting out] affordable vinyl additions. They are fantastic.

UOTS: Growing up, I was more into punk and power-pop, but the longer your listen, the more your mind gets opened up.

PC: It seems like that's happening with younger kids. I know a kid who's 18, super into the blues -- a guitar player. When I came up, it just attracted me from a very early age. I think I was a little unusual.

UOTS: I think that with a lot of indie rock, and commercial pop, there are artists who have to try really hard to be cool, and the reaction to that is so fussy, manicured --

PC: Right, right.

UOTS: I think that's one of the reason for this stuff's increasing popularity. People want the real shit.

PC: I think that's right, man. That's a good point.

UOTS: So, you had some health issues before Wig!.

PC: I had a big heart operation in early 2009. I came back from that and did Wig!.

UOTS: Was there a connection? After dealing with that did you feel energized to make a rock 'n' roll record?

PC: I don't know, I didn't think about it like that, but that might be true. I just did what came natural. I certainly felt a lot better, I can tell you that.

UOTS: You were without health insurance. How did you raise the money to pay for all that stuff?

PC: Well, I'm part of the music community, and I'm very fortunate and people pulled together to help me. A lot of musicians, who just help each other. And that happened for me. I'm insured now for everything except my heart [laughs] but that's kind of how America works.

UOTS: What's next?

PC: I'm working on a second volume of my book. Far As You Can Go Without a Passport, the second volume. So that will be out the later part of this year, I hope.

UOTS: The first volume of the book deals with your formative years, right?

PC: Yeah, it's about hanging out on the streets of San Francisco as a teenager, so that's what that's about.

UOTS: What's going to be covered in the next one?

PC: A little bit more of that, and then sort of the end of that period.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.