Interviews : Questions & Answers, gingerly condensed and free of coughing fits.

peter case

Dream On, Peter Case.

Peter Case left home when he was 16, taught himself to play country blues on the streets of San Francisco, and was in a couple of signal L.A. rock bands: the Nerves and the Plimsouls. For the last 25 years Case has worked as a singer-songwriter, building a lauded catalog of songs and a reputation as a musician’s musician. Springsteen and Prine and Ely are fans. Sir George Martin tapped him to play Beatles songs at the Hollywood Bowl. He returned from open heart surgery with 2010′s Wig!, a pummeling collection of blues, punk, and garage rock. We talked after a house concert he played at Boston luthier Yukon Stubblebine’s home.

Q: Before I turned my tape recorder on you were talking about arthritis.

A: Yeah. One of the things you take for granted when you’re younger is how many aspects of your creativity are physical. My problem is in my thumb, and everything I do comes through my thumb. I play guitar, I play piano, I write, I drive, I type, and I experience a lot of pain. Lately I know that there’s a price to pay for sitting down and playing piano, and it does hang me up. I’ll sit down at the piano and say “this better be good, I hope this is worth doing, because this is going to cause me pain.” The idea that “this better be good” is very non-productive. In fact it’s totally ruinous.

Q: What else has changed?

A: Songwriting’s a lot different than it was when I was younger and there are so many factors it’s hard to put your finger on. When you’re young, songs come to you. They come fast and it’s like getting hit by lightning. It would be quite a while until another one came or maybe another would come right away, but it always seemed kind of out of control. I didn’t have a writing discipline. I knew nothing about discipline. My life was very chaotic. I was pulling the pieces together of a very kind of shattered scene as a kid and I was on the run for a while.

Q: When did you start writing songs?

A: When I was a kid living with my parents I was writing songs regularly. Bands were playing them, older guys, and when I left, at 16, I didn’t start writing again for a number of years. I wanted to be writing. I wrote words and I played music but it took years before they turned into songs again.

Q: Why is that?

A: I was constantly hustling to make a living and I became very unfocused.  But I learned how to play blues during that period, how to sing and play old songs.

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aimee mann

Aimee Mann’s Head Is Filled With Sharp Tools.

A few things you should know about Aimee Mann: She boxes. Comedians and twelve step programs are her great inspiration. While her songs might lead you to believe otherwise, Aimee Mann isn’t sad. She guest-starred as a cleaning lady on Portlandia. The word brain came out of her mouth 19 times during our conversation at Q Division studios in Somerville. She is 51.

Q: So, I think you know that I want to talk to you about creativity and aging.

A: Aging. That word aging seems to have certain connotations.

Q: I know.

A: Aging sort of implies decay.

Q: Right, and that’s real. Our bodies are going to break down and die. But we can also think and talk about aging in terms of the passage of time.

A: Yeah it’s interesting because I feel like it does sort of have two meanings. I would say my relationship to what I do has changed over time, but only in a positive way, you know? Like, really in a positive way.

Q: Tell me about that.

A: I think that two things happen as you do something a lot. One, your brain becomes acclimated to the specific kinds of tasks that you ask it to perform and begins to perform them more automatically for you. And the second is that you learn how to make smarter choices and shortcuts, so that you’re more efficient. I almost feel like it’s exponentially easier and more efficient to be creative, because a lot of creativity is generating ideas and then stepping back – well, this is how it works for me — generating ideas and then stepping back and being objective and editing your ideas.  For me this task would be thinking of the thing you want to say and arranging it in a form that rhymes. That would be one big task that I require of my brain. And if your brain is closer to doing that automatically, then you’re already ahead of the game.

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Mike Watt

Mike Watt’s Punk Rock Portrait of the Middle Aged Artist.

Mike Watt calls his bass the thud staff. When he sings or talks, it’s spiel. He still jams econo, living and touring frugally with his attention on the music, not the trappings. A seminal punk bassist and songwriter, Watt has embodied a particularly inventive and influential strain of the D.I.Y. ethos for three decades, first as a founding member of the Minutemen with his friend D. Boon, whose death in a 1985 van wreck while on tour was and is a defining experience, and then with fIREHOSE and dos, a string of solo albums, and a slew of bands and collaborations, including his current gig as one of Iggy’s Stooges. Last year Watt, who’s 53, released his third opera, Hyphenated-Man, a 30-track rumination on middle age. He called from his home in San Pedro, California, where he’s lived since he was a boy.

Q: Why did you want to make an album dealing explicitly with midlife?

A: Because I’m immersed in it. It’s on me. Mechanically, in terms of my other two operas, there’s a kind of arc or a thread that binds them, but in the other ones I was kind of retelling something that had happened to me, and on this one I was trying to be more right there in the moment. What is happening with me. I wanted that challenge because it’s hard to do. It becomes past the next minute after you’ve done it.

Q: Is it harder to be immediate than to reframe things in hindsight?

A: Well, yeah. There’s two other ways of doing it. I could have been a younger man and guessed what it was going to be like. They would have been very far-off guesses. I could have waited until I got past middle age, into senility, when you probably forget everything. There’s no way to really know about this place for me except by living it.

Q: What is it like?

A: You have experience that you didn’t have as a younger person, but your body ain’t as good. You have a different, I think, overall picture of things. The glass half empty, half full thing is big-time when you’re young. That finitism, the awareness of it, isn’t as strong as now. Because you can feel it, you can feel it in your body that you’re breaking down, the body parts, maybe even the mind parts. But the mind parts have the things that the younger mind doesn’t have, with the experiences. You just can’t create those, you know. You have to live them. So what’s it like in this thing? It’s kind of a journeyman’s, a journeyperson’s, place. You’ve actually put time in, you know.

Q: It sounds like a mixed bag for you, with the breadth of experience and the experience of decay.

A: You know, I almost died when I was 22 from pneumonia. And I didn’t even write a song about that. At 42, it was a whole opera [Watt was gravely ill in 2000]. Because I guess I was coming into middle age then. The biggest fear was I was going to die without getting all this work done. I still had things to do, you know. After that I was very aware that I had to get a lot of shit done, because I didn’t know how much time I had.

Q: Yeah, mortality will do that to you.

A: Yeah. Yeah. Whereas with the 22-year-old scare, you know, we played, I didn’t even think about it again. Because we’re more resilient. In the middle part, you’re not Superman with the body, but I think you can get kind of Superman with the mind. Like, “Oh, I’ve been everywhere.” You can get jaded. Just because you do have some experiences, you can get overconfident, and hubris, and full of yourself. There is a danger to it. There’s dangers all during the journey of life, but they’re different kinds of dangers. They kind of change.

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Mary-Gauthier

Mary Gauthier On Late Starts, Transcending Trauma, and Her Searing Song Cycle.

49 years ago Mary Gauthier was abandoned by her mother at the St. Vincent’s Infants Home in New Orleans. She was adopted by a messed-up family, hit the road at 15, spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell, took a boatload of drugs, studied philosophy, learned to cook, opened a restaurant (Boston’s late great Dixie Kitchen), got sober, and released her first record at 35. It turns out Gauthier had a late-blooming gift. Last year she released her seventh recording, a concept album called “The Foundling.” It’s scathing and tender and fearless.

Q: I want to ask you about coming to music. You started later than most.

A: Yes, it was a blessing and a curse.

Q: A blessing and a curse in what ways?

A: Well, the way that it went for me and continues to go is that I couldn’t write a song until I got my head cleared up. I had a well-documented drug and alcohol problem from hell. Until I got that under control through 12-step programs, treatment centers, therapy and all the work that’s involved in that, I could, oddly, run three restaurants simultaneously, but I couldn’t write a song. I was able to do hard work. I just couldn’t do extremely creative work. I mean, people might argue that the restaurants were creative, but for me songwriting operates on a whole other level.

Q: A lot of people use drugs and alcohol to fuel the creative process, but you had to get clean before you could write a song.

A: Because I was using it as self-medication. I was trying to extinguish the emotions. I was trying to put the fire out inside of me because there was a pain in me that I could not cope with. It wasn’t a party, it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t let’s get together and laugh and joke. It was dark. As it turned out, over the years creating sober I finally found my way to what the source of the hurt was, and of course it was that on the day I was born my mother gave me away. Rationally, anybody could have said that. The therapist said it for years, that you’ve got to look at this adoption trauma. And I thought, come on, that’s just too obvious, it’s not that. There’s something else. It just didn’t register, until it did.

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Chuck D

Chuck D Said It Before And He’ll Say It Again: Fight The Power.

Chuck D is a rapper, author, producer, activist, and leader of the musically and politically revolutionary group Public Enemy. In 2009 he launched hiphopgods.com, whose tagline is “where classic rap lives on.” We spoke on the phone from his house north of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Gaye Theresa Johnson, an assistant professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and their newborn baby.

Q: You’re among the first generation of hip hop artists to move into midlife. Is the rap world a happy place for older artists?

A: Well, I came in as an older person. On my first record I was 27 years old, and at that particular time if you were over 18, 19, I mean, I came in ancient, and I’m the fifth oldest in the group. Flav is a year older than me. He was born in 1959. And me and Griff were born on the same day. We always say the fact is you’ve just got to be yourself. We grew up fans of Stevie Wonder and Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, the Tempations, all these people that were older than us, but we didn’t know how old they were. All we knew was they put out good music. People like the Jackson Five and the Sylvers, groups that they designed for kids, they were the exception, they weren’t the rule.

Q: What about now? Is rap still a young person’s game?

A: It depends. If you look at major record labels as being the beginning and end of it all, with the bottom line saying who is what, yeah. But in the Internet age it’s an impossible thing to call, because artists of all ages are doing things across the board, and it’s no different in hip hop. The genre is 30 years old as recorded music. Does somebody who liked hip hop at 25 have to automatically graduate to jazz? Rock and roll is a 50-some-odd-year documented genre. Somebody who was 12 in 1956 with Little Richard is close to 70. Does that take them out of rock and roll? The thing that makes this different from any other time in the past is an eight-year-old has access to the archives of history. So you see a young kid with a shirt that says “The Beatles.” What is that about?

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