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 all three.
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.
Producer MARK STOCKERT on the Lonely Avenue Sessions
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 Setzer records?
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 your lap?
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