- Peter Case: The man with the post-modern guitar
According to his official bio, the title of Peter Case's new album, Flying Saucer Blues, is a reference to an old Mississippi rockabilly roadhouse. But for Case, it's also a description of a state of mind, specifically "walking around, looking at the world now, and feeling like I just got here in a flying saucer; feeling far away from home."
An embarrassed laugh indicates that maybe it's actually a combination of the two.
"For a while, flying saucers were part of the hallucinations that were tied to the whole rock and roll thing, in a rockabilly kind of way," Case finally offers during a phone interview.
Whatever its origin, Flying Saucer Blues is the 46-year-old singer-songwriter's finest album since his self-titled 1986 debut, a permutation of passions -- rock and roll, folk, and blues -- wrapped in a set of songs on time-tested subjects like life, love, and death. It also rocks harder than most of Case's albums released in the '90s. Peculiarly, Flying Saucer Blues was recorded with the same producer and group of musicians that appeared on his last album, 1998's folk-leaning Full Service No Waiting.
"The songs [for Flying Saucer Blues] were written only a year later," he says. "But it came out differently. The previous records were more focused on the lyrics. This record is more traditionally musical. I just kind of wanted to open and sing, and for that to happen, the songs have to be simpler.
"I was listening to a lot of old mountain music, and believe it or not, that has a lot of simpler kind of values to it," he continues. "And I was listening to the Beatles again. But for me, you make an album and go out on the road and sing for a hundred nights. The songs always mean one thing to you at home, but when you're on the road playing, you start seeing different sides of it, and you also start desiring, if you're a songwriter, the next group of songs. You start looking for things in the show you wish you could do. That's how it is for me. I'm always trying to complete the picture in another way."
Case has been trying to "complete one picture" or another since he started busking on the streets of San Francisco in the mid-'70s. Playing blues and folk music on the corner, he met songwriter Jack Lee, who drafted him into one of the area's premiere punk bands, the Nerves.
"It was pretty exciting for me, because it was a whole step up," Case says of the experience. "I was living on the street in San Francisco, so being in a band was like being in the merchant marine."
In grand punk fashion, the Nerves imploded after making only one album. Case went on to form the Plimsouls, a more roots-oriented group that eked out an early '80s radio staple of sorts in the song "A Million Miles Away."
"From 1977 to about 1980, I was totally involved with playing rock and roll," Case explains. "I was just totally consumed with being in a band and making a million dollars. But somewhere along the way, I got my first good acoustic guitar. And in a way, that was the end of the Plimsouls. All of a sudden, I was back to playing acoustic guitar again.
"I was onstage in Lubbock, Texas, in 1981, and I looked around and, all of sudden, realized that I wasn't still going to be doing the Plimsouls," he continues. "The roadies and I had this jug band, and we would start recording and having these parties after the Plimsouls shows. That started becoming more important to me than the gigs."
In 1986, Case released his eponymous folk-leaning debut, a masterwork of one sly cover (the Pogues' "Pair of Brown Eyes") and a collection of stirring originals. Case says it gave him the opportunity to put more of what he loved into the music.
"My acoustic stuff has a lot of rock and roll in it, and my rock and roll always had a lot of soul in it," he maintains. "I really didn't know how to write songs when I was with the Plimsouls. It's like we'd get struck by lightning and write one every now and then. More often than not, though, even if we were struck, I wouldn't write the songs because I didn't have it together. Sometime before I did my first solo record, I opened up. I completely opened up, and I haven't had writer's block since, whereas I permanently had it when I was in the Plimsouls. I think it was the wrong thing for me. I just found my voice."
Case signed with Geffen for two more albums, the first of which was The Man With the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar. Soon after, Case began singing the record company blues.
"It was really hard to be on Geffen and be a singer-songwriter," he says. "They didn't really believe in what I was doing. They didn't really have ideas. They wouldn't answer my phone calls, but they wouldn't let me out of my deal. Then, when I wanted to do a record, they wouldn't give me money to do it. That was the toughest part of my career."
Eventually, Case agreed to work with Geffen-picked producer Mitchell Froom, whose ambient-soaked knob-twiddling did wonders for Los Lobos, but from a singer-songwriter perspective, the match wasn't so divine. While it did generate Case's most radio airtime since "A Million Miles Away" in "Dream About You," Six Pack of Love didn't stay true to Case's identity as a singer-songwriter.
"It didn't really represent the way I sound at all," he says of the record. "The songs tended to disappear. I got off the label and had to rebuild."
Case's three remaining albums from the decade were song-focused, occasionally drifting into singer-songwriter traps. He grew stronger as both singer and songwriter during the period, however, and this path ultimately led to the rock and roll rave-up of Flying Saucer Blues.
"I guess [Flying Saucer Blues] is a reaction to the record before [1998's Full Service No Waiting]," he says. "I really love that one, but the whole art of being a musician is to carry people away, not send them to school."