Peter Case

Interview: Peter Case Piano Broke The Silence For “Doctor Moan”


Peter Case photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong

Peter Case

Peter Case ’s Piano Broke The Silence For Doctor Moan

Peter Case is going to be releasing his sixteenth studio album, Doctor Moan, on March 31st, 2023, via Sunset Blvd Records. In some ways it was a surprising development for Case since in his professional life, he’s never been at home long enough to write a whole album and then complete it by going into the studio immediately. For that reason, there is a particular sense of focus here which he’s very happy with. Another reason why it’s an anomaly for Case is that it arose from deciding to dedicate time to his piano playing, something he’s done all his life, but has mainly pursued for personal enjoyment. Gradually, this meditative time developed into a whole raft of songs and since they were piano-driven, he had to find a worthy piano in a studio to work with.

This led him to Ryan McCaffrey, who happened to have just such a piano, at The Sun Machine studio. While Case plays piano, harmonica, mellotron and guitar on the album, the record also features Jonny Flaugher (Lady Blackbird, Pokey LaFarge) on electric and acoustic bass, and Chris Joyner (Rickie Lee Jones, Ben Harper) on B-3 organ. I spoke with Peter Case about his journey into piano playing, its development into more songwriting, and some of the atmosphere you’ll find on Doctor Moan.

Americana Highways: You’ve had such a long career in music and created so many albums. Do you ever run out of ideas?

Peter Case: I’ve been in a good period. The last three albums, particularly, I’ve really hit on something I’ve been interested in. I’m thankful for that.

Peter Case
Peter Case (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/ The Aperturist)

AH: Is the opportunity to collaborate with friends and other musicians part of the appeal of recording an album?

PC: Sometimes. It wasn’t so much this time since this is a pretty stripped down as an album. I made a new friend to make this record, Ryan McCaffrey. It’s me and the bass player, Jonny Flaugher, on this record. And an organ player. They are friends of mine now. But other times, sure, like on Midnight Broadcast, that record was produced by a friend of mine, Ron Franklin, and we’d been talking about making a record for a long time. That was a really special project for me, too.

The impetus on this one was just these songs. During the shutdown, things were really different. All of the sudden, I wasn’t on the road. I live in an apartment in San Francisco and in the front room, there’s a piano. I had a really big year planned to tour for Midnight Broadcast, but I realized I wasn’t going to be touring for a year. Everything fell flat for all of us. I was in this room with a piano feeling chlaustrophobic so I decided to use the time to play piano every day. I’ve always played, but I’ve never spent this much time playing it.

At first, I just learned old songs by other people, but then these songs started to come after about a month of play. I learned a Thelonius Monk piece. I can learn the melody and chords a little bit. All the sudden, these songs started to appear and happen.

AH: Do you think it was about being in the right mental space to be able to make songs? Things were so distracting back then, and it was hard for people to engage in something more positive.

PC: That’s what I was trying to bring across with this by playing a lot every day. I also sang a lot. It was so quiet outside. San Francisco was a ghost town at that point. I was outside doing something and a guy walked by and said, “Are you the guy that plays piano?” [Laughs] I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I like that one that you’re working on now.” [Laughs] That was the kind of feedback I got because you could hear the piano ringing up and down the street.

Music is a way to a higher ground. I find that I get a lot of peace from it. It’s a wavelength I’ve always tuned into ever since I left home when I was just a kid at 16. I had a lot of anxiety at different times but I kind of clung to music and it helped me through it. It’s still like that, really, since it’s my main path to understand who I am. So I was really fortunate, on this record, to be able to stay plugged into it.

On a lot of records, I’ll be right in the middle of it, then I’ll have to go on tour. Sometimes you drop the thread. On this one, I didn’t. I was able to compose the songs, learn how to play them, and how to sing them, and then I got to go straight from there into recording. That’s actually the only time in my whole career that I’ve been able to do that. I think the record has a feeling to it because of that, one that runs through it. It’s very centered.

AH: It has a lot of immediacy to it, too, like it takes on the role of live-play, too.

PC: I think so, too. It’s got that energy all poured into it. I wanted to get it as close to what I was hearing as possible but I had to find a good piano in a studio. I was looking for an upright piano and a fellow told me that in Novato there was a 1906 Steinway upright that had been restored in a studio. I checked it out and it was perfect and Ryan was a great guy, too. We ended up teaming up on this record.


AH: Is that the piano that we see on the cover art for this album?

PC: That’s the one there. [Laughs] That’s definitely the vibe. It’s one of those kind of pianos. It’s got the energy coming out of it on the cover.

AH: How unusual was it for you to write songs on the piano this time?

PC: On the last album, we recorded it in a church up in New England. They had a nice piano in that church and it reminded me of one of the first songs that I wrote that people really wanted to hear. It was called “Just Hanging On.” That was on the piano. Before I left home, I was playing piano a lot, but when I left, I just took a guitar. I’ve played a lot over the years, and it’s kind of been a kick for me as something that I didn’t do professionally that much, but I really did for enjoyment.

A few times I wrote things with piano, but I feel like the songs just kind of come and you don’t necessarily write them on an instrument. Then you get them onto the piano. Occasionally, something comes through from piano playing. On the piano, I can do things that surprise myself. When I was a kid on the piano, I used to make up War and Peace kind of sounds, with the low sounds and the high sounds. I’d make up fantasies. In a way, it’s still kind of similar to that. The piano has a lot of different voices in there that you can find.

AH: That kind of range, that epic sweep, is something that I can hear on a lot of these songs.

PC: You can bring in different instruments to do that, too. Piano is convenient to come up with new harmonies and chords. I do love the piano very much.

AH: I saw that you had been doing some piano playing at a church. How did that come about?

PC: That’s the Church of St. John Coltrane. What happened was that I was attending there, and their piano player didn’t show up at one point. They asked if there were any piano players present and I didn’t raise my hand, but my wife made put my hand up. I sat in with the group. I was unsure of what to do. The service every week is John Coltrane’s music played by this group. I played “Love Supreme” and didn’t know what I was doing.

I sort of played rhythm piano and they invited me back every week. After I was there for a few months, the bass player said, “You’re starting to get it!” [Laughs] I did, though I had to study a little bit. It went on for a few years. We did a few shows beyond that too. It really helped my playing a lot. It stopped during the pandemic. They are beautiful people with a great message. Coltrane is a saint in the African Orthodox Church.

AH: Was it nerve wracking playing things on the spot at the church?

PC: Well, I like to tell people that you haven’t lived until you’ve been booed by a whole big theater. That happened with the Plimsouls. We were opening for a classic rock band in Cleveland and there had been some kind of rumor that we were a punk band. The audiences just came out and went crazy booing us. This was in 1979 or 1980. They thought we were coming to destroy their rock ‘n roll. We were opening a whole tour for this group, so it was even worse in Pittsburgh. But as we worked our way south, we got more and more popular with these audiences, and the main band got less popular. We got down to Atlanta and got a huge ovation. I don’t know why that happened.

AH: That’s an interesting arc of starting at the lowest low and ending at the highest high.

PC: You never know what’s going to happen. We could have quit after a couple of nights. Sometimes you have to grind it out. It was harrowing, but it paid off.

AH: Did that toughen you up to audience reactions?

PC: Yeah, but I came from being a street musician. When I was a teenager, I played on the street in San Francisco. I played downtown, outside nightclubs, and all around. I learned then that when you’re playing on the street, you’re not playing somewhere where you’re really supposed to be playing music. There’s 15,000 pounds of pressure not to sing and play guitar. I learned that, and I also learned to talk to strangers as they were going by, to sing to them. I had that background, so when I was getting booed, I just sort of went at it. It’s a challenge and you try to rise to it. You have to have a sense of humor about it. Sometimes when I was a teenager, it was so bad that it was kind of a trip. It was kind of exciting when people were throwing bottles.

AH: Is there a sense in which getting a reaction is better than no reaction?

PC: Oh yeah, I think so. It’s more alive.

AH: Do you have personal goals for your music?

PC: Overall, when I make music or art, I’m trying to make something that’s inspiring to me and to other people.

AH: These songs are quite serious, at times, but I feel like there’s also something positive here.

PC: I think that’s true. I think you try to be as truthful in music, and as real about it as you can be, because it’s a form of companionship. Songs are like talking to someone or someone’s talking to you. They are a conversation with people. It’s important to be honest and I have a message of hope, I guess, or you might call it redemption.

AH: One very epic song, with highs and lows, is “Have You Ever Been in Trouble.” It has a big mood though a lot is left open to interpretation. There’s a feeling of conflict and spaciousness.

PC: I would say that song and “Eyes of Love” were the beginning of the writing of the album. That’s when I knew that I was onto something. There’s something of the silence that the world was going through. The songs tell their own story, but it’s definitely of that period.

AH: There’s a feeling of redemption in that one, too. The ending of the story is left open.

PC: Yeah, I think so. I don’t think you ever really know how a story is going to end.

AH: The song “Eyes of Love” surprised me because it’s so slow and it takes its time. You also allow a lot of detailed lyrics there.

PC: That was the very first one. It started out as something else. All the sudden I started playing this thing that was almost an instrumental. That was a mood, a feeling at the time. That’s the one that the guy walking by said he liked. I was playing that piece over and over again. I knew I was getting a vibe on that song since I was getting a response from an abandoned world. But that might be one of the slowest things I’ve ever cut.

AH: Titles seem important to you on albums. What significance does “Doctor Moan” have?

PC: Doctor Moan is a name that came up at the very beginning of the composition of the record. The joke was that I was talking to someone about a wounded Chiron-like healer living on the outskirts of society. It’s a duality, with the healing and the pain. I liked the sound of it, too.

AH: That’s kind of what I thought. There’s a very old tradition where lamenting, music, and sound, were seen as cathartic and a healing thing. Peoples’ jobs used to be to go to funerals and lament.

PC: Totally! I agree. That’s what it is, really. You could say that Doctor Moan is someone who sings at funerals, but the phrase contains it. There’s more and less to it than that. Hopefully the record is something that, hopefully, people can live with for a while, so it has different levels to it.

Thank you very much, Peter Case, for talking with us.  Find more information and his music here:

Enjoy our previous coverage here: Show Review: Peter Case, This is Your Life

Video Premiere: Peter Case “When I Was A Cowboy”











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