LOTOF GUITAR HEROES BURN WITH A DAZZLING
phosphorescence on their first couple of albums
but then their splendor slowly fades as, year
after year, they launch the same old fireworks.
But Brian Setzer is one of those rare firecrackers
that seem to detonate louder and brighter
with each passing decade—all while subtly pushing
in new directions. With Stray Cats hits such
as “Rock this Town,” “Stray Cat Strut,” and
“Sexy and 17,” Setzer used his jazzy twang and
refreshingly raw riffs to put the spark of life in
the ’80s rockabilly revival. And though the genre
fell from favor later in the decade, and Setzer
began his solo career with an ill-advised effort
at heartland rock, thankfully it didn’t take long
before he found his footing in a huge way. He
put together a 17-piece big band in the mid ’90s
and its hits (including “Jump Jive an’ Wail”)
single-handedly revived swing. Then, in 2001,
his Ignition featured a new rockabilly trio with
enough supercharged swagger, jaw-dropping
licks, and tight vocal harmonies to make the
Stray Cats sound tame. Perhaps his most ambitious
project came in 2007, when Setzer enlisted
noted big-band legend Frank Comstock to help
him score swinging interpretations of classical
standards for Wolfgang’s Big Night Out. In
between all these projects, he kept his orchestra
busy with Christmas albums and concerts,
Stray Cats reunion tours, and other solo projects,
including 2005’s old-school Sun Records
tribute Rockabilly Riot, Vol. 1.
This year’s Songs from Lonely Avenue [Surfdog]
also features Comstock’s scoring expertise, and
is no less ambitious—it’s a film-noir-inspired
soundtrack to a movie script straight out of Setzer’s
imagination. But if it weren’t for a
serendipitous encounter, we might not be enjoying
the same Avenue that was released this
October. See, three years ago, Setzer relocated
to Minneapolis, Minnesota, after living in California
for most of his career. And while writing
for Avenue, he discovered a new friend named
Mark Stockert owned a studio and asked him if
he could come over to record a couple of demos.
Minutes after plugging into Stockert’s vintage
amp collection, the Great Pompadoured One was
so inspired that he had Stockert call in a drummer
and bass player he’d never even heard before.
The energy of this new combination of gear
and personnel stoked Setzer’s creative fires,
fueling inspired performances and a barrage
of new ideas. “I was waking up from a dead
sleep with song ideas,” says Setzer. “All of a
sudden I go, ‘I think I’ve got a record here—
this sounds much better than a demo.”
How did the idea for Avenue come together?
Whenever I finish an album I’ve always got
the “I’ll never write another song again” blues
[laughs]. And then, all of a sudden, I get a focus.
Like with Ignition, it was hot-rod rockabilly, and
for the last BSO album it was putting big band
to classical music. The first song I wrote for this
record was “Passion of the Night,” and I said,
“Man, this sounds almost like a film—like a
soundtrack song.” That opened the floodgates.
I thought, “What if I write the soundtrack to a
movie first, and then someone writes the actual
movie after it?” Because in film scoring it’s
always the other way around—there’s a film and
then they hand it to some guy and he writes a
soundtrack. There’s some guy running down an
alley, so he writes suspense music. And there’s
a love scene and he writes a love song or something
tender. I kind of did it the other way.
Were there actual films that inspired your writing?
It was more soundtrack music from the ’40s
and ’50s. Old James Cagney movies, even down
to the teen culture movies, like Thunder Road with
Robert Mitchum, or obscure ones like Hot Rod
Rumble. I was inspired by how a lot of that music
just drifts into parts without time signatures and
how there are parts that only play once. It doesn’t
have choruses, bridges, or lyrics—they aren’t
songs. I thought, “Why can’t I do that? What
about if I take that film noir feeling and write
songs to it?” And that just lit me up.
What happened then?
I set out to make some demos at my frien-
Mark Stockert’s place. I plugged into one of
his old amps and said, “Wow, this is a great
sound. Let’s put a click track down and cut a
couple of tracks so I have some good-sounding
demos.” It was such a fun, relaxed
atmosphere—kind of like a poker party—and
I realized I couldn’t beat that sound, so I asked
if anyone knew a good drummer. This drummer,
Noah Levy, showed up ten minutes later
and I went, “Oh my god! Where has this guy
been hiding?” Then I was like, “Do you know
any bass players?” And then another guy
shows up. I got so inspired that I just kept
writing songs. It was going so fast and furious
that pretty soon I had 13 tracks and I
thought, “Why do I need to re-cut these tracks?
Maybe the big band can just play to these
tracks?” I’ve never done it like that, so I was
a little apprehensive. But it worked.
So the drummer and bass player on the album
are these guys you called up out of the blue?
Well, the drummer I used was the guy
we called out of the blue, and the bass player
we called that same night is a great bass
player, but we ended up using my bass player,
Johnny Hatton, for some of the tracks. I kept
the drum tracks, my guitar, and maybe half
of the original bass tracks.
What gear did you use?
I used my new Gretsches because they
sound just as good as the old ones without
having to revamp the entire guitar to make
it play right. But what got me going was
Mark’s old Supro Thunderbolt amp with one
15" speaker. Another one was a Sears Silvertone
1484 with two 12s and killer vibrato that I used on “Kiss Me Deadly.” I also used
my old Bassman. I used my Roland Space
Echo with all of them.
The guitar sound on “Trouble Train” has a more
midrange-y sound than you’ve used in the past—
almost like a wah cocked halfway.
That’s the Supro, the first amp I recorded.
It’s on the verge of being too distorted, a little
skwonky sounding, but it just suited the
song. I second-guess myself on every track
I do: I turn it too loud, and then I turn it not
loud enough. And then usually when I’m
done I try another amp or two. If I can beat
it, then good, that’s the sound.
Tell me about the Asian-sounding harmonized
riffs at the beginning of “Dimes in the Jar.”
I wrote that blues riff at the beginning
and I thought it sounded pretty original,
and then I just doubled it an octave higher
and then again another octave higher. I
do that sometimes just to have it. Sometimes
it doesn’t work, but this time I kept
What else about Lonely Avenue stands out as
special to you?
You could ask me about my vibe playing
on “Trouble Train.” [Laughs]
That was you?
Yeah! Mark just happened to have a set of
vibes, and random stuff like that is what made
cutting the record so much fun. “You’ve got
vibes? Do they work?” Squeeze a little oil on
’em, “Oh, there it goes! Here’s the chord I
want—stick a mic up to it.” Ding-ding-ding.
“Okay, well that’s done.” That’s how a lot of
the record came about. Just relaxing and not
being under the pressure of the dollar sign
rolling by as the clock ticked.
on the Lonely
How did you come to produce Lonely Avenue, and
what were some of the highlights of the sessions?
Brian’s wife [Julie Setzer, former singer of
the Dustbunnies] is from Minneapolis originally,
and two guys from her old band played
in a band with me about 15 years ago. When
she and Brian came back to town, I was tending
bar one night a week and they started
coming in there. I got to know Brian a little
bit, but he didn’t know I had a studio—and
I wasn’t going to tell him because people
really latch onto him wherever he goes. We
went to Nashville recently, and I might as
well have been with McCartney. So I wasn’t
going to be that guy. But once a year I have
a holiday party at the studio, and Brian and
Julie showed up. Brian was like, “How come
I didn’t know about this place?” He asked if
we could do a couple of demos, and he
showed up the first day with one guitar and
a Champ. I was like, [laughs], “It’s Brian
Setzer—I’m not going
to just do demo quality.”
I miked it up all
nice, and he said,
“Maybe I should try
something else.” So he
plugged into my old
Supro Thunderbolt and he
just went, “I’ve been looking for this sound forever!” We did a couple of
songs, and then he said, “Can you get a drummer
here?” And I was, like, “Next week or in
a couple of days or what?” He had this gleam
in his eye and he said, “How about now?”
What mics did you use on the amps?
I close-miked with a Beyerdynamic M
88 Classic at a 45-degree angle
at the edge of the cone, about
half an inch or an inch away
from the grille. Then I put a
Royer R-121 ribbon mic four or
five feet away. I also used a Blue
Kiwi to capture room ambience.
What struck you most about how
A lot of guitarists go through a bunch
of solo takes and comp together the best
pieces, but not Brian. He’d play these
amazing solos—and all of them were quite
different, just totally off the top of his
head—and if he made one little mistake
he’d redo it. Instead of comping parts
together, he’d say “[expletive] it—I’m
going to play it like a man.” I remember
my engineer actually blushing during
some of the takes because he was so blown
away by the stuff Brian was playing.
What was it like to have this sort of fall into
It was amazing. Brian was so excited—
it was the kind of energy you usually only
see with 17-year-olds in their first band.
He just caught on fire and kept writing
all these songs. He’d call me really late at
night sometimes and say, “Check out this
song I just wrote.” Then he’d set the
phone down and play me something like
“Lonely Avenue,” and I was like, “Oh my
god, this is an instant classic.” —SH