Peter Case sits by the window in an upstairs room at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, some 25 minutes into an interview that has already covered growing up near Buffalo, N.Y., how his new album, “Wig!,” came about, his first guitar teacher, the roots of his own music and the benefits of analog over digital recording.
He’s been animated, laughing, tripping over himself at times in the rush to tell old stories about the Nerves and the Plimsouls, his pop-punk bands from the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, even picking up an old battered guitar and working through a few jazz chord progressions.
Then comes the question: How did his near death more than 18 months ago and the emergency heart surgery that saved him affect the way he writes music?
Case, 56, falls silent and stares out the window, drumming his fingers on the back of the empty chair next to him as he goes through some sort of internal calibration.
“It’s hard to put your finger on, man,” Case finally says. “It was really a shocker, really blew my mind… The things you think about, about life and stuff, are different from what you think about a lot of the rest of the time. So on some level, I suppose it was charged up by that, a ‘now is the time’ kind of vibe.”
“Charged up” is the right phrase for “Wig!” It’s Case’s first collection of new songs since the emergency bypass surgery in January 2009 that forced him to cancel special concerts marking his 25th year as a solo artist. (“I’m glad to be alive,” he announced at the time, “but it really kicked my… .”)
With old friends D.J. Bonebrake of X on drums and Memphis, Tenn., guitarist Ron Franklin backing him up, Case spent a mere two days laying down the 12 tracks, which bristle with the energy of hard-charging roadhouse blues.
The album came together by chance. The trio convened for a Case concert in December at McCabe’s, meant to be a replacement for the gig that had been canceled by the heart surgery. Franklin spent a few extra days in town, Case says, and they spent hours jamming on different songs that weren’t on the concert playlist.
“We just started working on music,” he says. “I had a couple lyrics I had written that I handed to him and said, ‘Do something with this.’” Franklin came back a little while later and “he’d set it to music…. On that Sunday, we came up with a large chunk of material.”
Two days later, they were in the studio, and by the end of the week the album was essentially done. “It went down really fast and fun,” Case says.
The energy comes through on the album, which sounds full and warm, more rooted in stomp blues than the mostly neo-folk work Case has done since embarking on his solo career in 1986 (his “The Man With the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar” is a high-water mark). It has the energy of a spontaneous jam session, which Case hopes will translate on tour this summer, including shows at McCabe’s, where Case has been teaching songwriting for a decade, on Friday.
“I’m picking up bands a la Chuck Berry,” Case says. “I know so many musicians around the country, I’m going to be working with different friends. I got a Southern band. I got guys back in Buffalo. I got guys in Minneapolis.”
Case could be a blues song all by himself. He grew up in the “snow belt” town of Hamburg, N.Y., south of Buffalo, and was drawn to music by the blues and R&B albums his older sisters brought home. But he also liked drugs, and at age 15 dropped out of high school and ran away. “I was troubled, a troubled youth,” he says. He spent some time in New York City and then moved to San Francisco in 1973, where he lived on the streets and busked for spare change — and developed his observation skills of the world around him.
“I started to see everything that was going on in a new way,” he says. But it also tapped into an Irish American family tradition of storytelling. “Things that happened in that family, it seemed like the only reason they happened was so that everybody could tell the story.”
Case eventually got his GED and flirted with college, but music led him to L.A. in 1977 and then on the road, with the long tours and bad food that he suspects, combined with genetics (both grandfathers died of heart ailments before age 60), led him to bypass surgery.
“I was laid up for a year — I wasn’t on the road, I wasn’t playing any gigs,” he says. “It was scary. It was depressing. There was a certain despair to it. It was like the whole world was out there doing its thing and I wasn’t even tuned in at all.... I sat there one day and thought, ‘Am I ever going to care about anything again?’”
Case tapped into his own early music and energy to break through, he says — although purely by chance. Alive Records approached him about remastering early Nerves and Plimsoul albums, plus another from a short-lived band he was in called the Breakaways.
“I could do that — it didn’t require too much jumping around,” Case says. “I spent a lot of time listening to myself and my buddies back when I was 22 or whatever I was.... Listening to all that stuff, I think, gave me, on some level, a lot of energy and tuned me back into that rock ‘n’ roll and energy of music. It got my head going.”