Brian Setzer Talks '40,' The Stray Cats' First New Album in 25 Years

"Rockabilly never goes out of style" declares Brian Setzer. And he aims to prove it by reuniting The Stray Cats for their first studio album in 25 years
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Setzer with his 2019 Gretsch G6120SHBTV Brian Setzer Hot Rod with TV Jones pickups (serial #JT05063529)

Setzer with his 2019 Gretsch G6120SHBTV Brian Setzer Hot Rod with TV Jones pickups (serial #JT05063529)

Brian Setzer says “When I hear a rock riff, I hear something that’s very tied to the drums. There’s a funky aspect to the way it works. But a great rockabilly riff operates on so many levels. I hear blues, country and jazz. I hear big bands and horn melodies. There’s a lot of colors going on. I guess that’s why I’ve found rockabilly so appealing. It’s a limitless art form.”

Some artists are tourists of multiple genres, but Setzer is more like an explorer, going deep into subcategories such as roots-rock, bluegrass, doo-wop, jump blues and hillbilly jazz. With uncanny prescience, he kickstarted the ’90s neo-swing revival when he formed his eponymous Orchestra in 1994, much as he did a decade earlier when he rebooted the Sun Studio sound of the 1950s with his group the Stray Cats. Shaking off a first impression is darn near impossible, and to the millions of music fans who first heard him hot-dogging solos with the Stray Cats on early ’80s hits like “Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut” and “Runaway Boys,” Setzer will always be associated with rockabilly. And he’s cool with that. “Rockabilly is so near and dear to my heart,” the guitarist says. “There’s just something exciting about it, and it never goes out of style. You can always add your own wrinkle to it and take it somewhere else.”

Setzer certainly does that on 40 (Surfdog Records), the new Stray Cats album, and the group’s first studio record since 1992’s Choo Choo Hot Fish. The album brims with bracing, stripped-down rockers like “Cat Fight (Over a Dog Like Me),” “Mean Pickin’ Mama” and “Devil Train,” and every track boasts a widescreen riff and virtuoso guitar solo. But the band also serves up some new sounds with the riff rocker “Cry Danger” (co-written with Mike Campbell) and the punk-like “I’ll Be Looking Out for You.” Some of that is thanks to Setzer’s longtime producer, Peter Collins, who tracked the record at Blackbird Studios in Nashville. “He loves rockabilly music as much as we do,” Setzer says of the U.K.-born producer, who has also worked with hard rockers like Rush, Billy Squier and Alice Cooper. “He’s got the same sort of mindset as [former Stray Cats producer] Dave Edmunds. He takes those sounds we love — twang, reverb, tape delay — but he doesn’t keep them in a box. This record doesn’t sound like it was made in the ’50s. It sounds like right now.”

Setzer with his 1959 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins (serial #33024).

Setzer with his 1959 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins (serial #33024).

Musical styles have certainly changed since Setzer and his bandmates arrived on the scene. Punk and new wave were the order of the day when he formed the Stray Cats with fellow Long Islanders and rockabilly enthusiasts Lee Rocker (upright bassist) and Slim Jim Phantom (snare and kick specialist) in the late ’70s. Sporting greaser duds, colorful tattoos and mile-high pompadours, the band invaded stages at New York City punk clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City — and they went down a smash. “The funny thing was, we weren’t really different from the punk bands,” Setzer says. “The rockabilly music from the ’50s was basically the punk music of its day. It was essentially I-IV-V blues progressions, with some killer musicians playing it. So I wrote songs in the rockabilly style, but it sounded just as fresh as what everybody else was doing.”

Even so, the band couldn’t get a record deal in the States, and it wasn’t until they relocated to England in 1980 — where they found fans like the Rolling Stones and a sympathetic producer in ex-Rockpile guitarist Dave Edmunds — that they signed with Arista and scored a series of chart hits. Two years later, EMI in the States took note and compiled the Stray Cats’ first two U.K. albums (Stray Cats and Gonna Ball) as Built for Speed. With MTV a fixture in living rooms across the nation, the band’s videos were seen 24/7, and Built for Speed became the surprise hit of 1982, selling more than a million copies.

But the Stray Cats quickly flamed out. Their Built for Speed follow-up, 1983’s Rant N’ Rave with the Stray Cats, produced a Top 10 hit with “(She’s) Sexy + 17” but only went Gold, and a year later the group, mired by internal squabbles, packed it in. Setzer puts the band’s breakup down to the predictable “too much, too soon” syndrome, but he also admits that his outsized ego was the root of the group’s demise.

“It was pride and stubbornness,” he says. “When you’re young and full of yourself, you start to think, I don’t need those other guys. Plus, there was a musical aspect to it — I wanted to try something a little different. So I did that. But after a while, you kind of grow up. You realize just how silly you were, and you think, Well, maybe we could get back together.”

With fellow Stray Cats members Lee Rocker (left) and Slim Jim Phantom (right)

With fellow Stray Cats members Lee Rocker (left) and Slim Jim Phantom (right)

As it happens, Setzer wasn’t thinking about getting back into the studio with the band when he started writing his latest batch of songs. As he explains, “I was just messing around with an old Fender Reverb Unit, and I just loved the twangy sound of it. I began writing these songs that were like spaghetti westerns — which is really surf-guitar music when you get down to it. But then I got on the phone with Jim, and he mentioned that our 40-year anniversary was coming up. I was like, ‘Holy cow, you’re right!’ So that planted the seed. 40 is a big number. You gotta honor it.”

What was the first rockabilly record that made you go, “What is that?”

That’s easy: “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” by Gene Vincent. I was 16 or 17, and I went to Max’s Kansas City. The jukebox was playing new wave and all the current stuff, but suddenly that song came on, and I was like, Wow… What is that? I went over to read what it was. That sound and that guitar solo just jumped out at me. I’ll never forget it.

There wasn’t anything like that around at the time. There was Robert Gordon, whom I found out about. But at the time, it was all new wave and punk — the Dead Boys, the Cramps… That kind of thing. Cliff Gallup’s guitar on “Be-Bop-A-Lula” just knocked me out. It was so different. The sound of that guitar just went right through me.

At the time, you were also a jazz fan, and what I’ve always liked about your playing is the way you mix jazz chords and soloing with rockabilly. Did that just happen naturally?

Well, see, I didn’t have musical blinders on. On Thursday night, I’d go to the Village Vanguard and see the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. On Friday night, I’d go see a punk band. I liked it all, and that’s what came out of me with chords and riffs. I had a certain style and played with a thumbpick and flatwound strings. It wasn’t conscious. There was nothing premeditated to it.

When did you get your first Gretsch?

I was 17 years old and found it in this local paper, The Byline Press. It said, “Gretsch guitar, 100 bucks.” I called the guy up and asked, “Is it like Eddie Cochran’s?” He was like, “Who?” So I went to his house, and there was the guitar, the 1959 orange 6120. It was exactly what I was looking for. He was going to refinish it and make it natural. He had all of the electronics for it in a shoe box. I gave him 100 bucks, took the guitar and the shoe box, and off I went. It was destiny.

Setzer with his 1956 Gretsch White Penguin

Setzer with his 1956 Gretsch White Penguin

What kinds of guitars were you playing before the Gretsch?

Prior to the Grestch, it was a Japanese guitar that my dad got for me at a pawnshop on Canal Street. I had to bug him for it because my parents didn’t have extra money to spend. They were just blue-collar folk. And then I think I moved up to a solidbody Harmony. Having the right guitar made all the difference. Some people could get a good sound on the Harmony, but I couldn’t figure it out. Although I did have better luck when somebody told me about Slinky strings. Before that, I was using these heavy-gauge strings. You could use those things for bridge cables. Slinky strings were a revelation to me, and, of course, so was the Gretsch.

Did it take a while for you to figure out the right amp to pair it with, the Fender Bassman?

The Bassman was another destiny thing. I thought it was just a really cool-looking amp. I was into my image and wanted to look cool. I saw these blonde amps and just thought, I need one of those. I didn’t even know how great they sounded. I answered another ad, this one from a jazz bass player in Weehawken. So I bought the amp, and there it was: “Wow, that’s the combination!”

Did having the right combination of guitar and amp change how you played or wrote?

It puts you in the right frame of mind, and you feel better about what you’re doing because you love the sound you’re getting. I’m not saying you can’t write a good rockabilly song with a Les Paul through a Marshall or some other non-rockabilly setup, but because the whole writing thing is so elusive, it just helps to have the right tools. Like on this new album: I couldn’t have written it without a Fender Reverb Unit. That thing really inspired me to get going.

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The Stray Cats formed in 1979, the same year that Queen had a surprise hit with their own take on rockabilly, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” What did you think of that song? Did it bother you at all?

Oh, no, I wasn’t bothered by that in the least. I thought it was fantastic! I thought it was great. Brian May really stepped outside his signature sound on that one. What a great solo he played, you know? I thought the whole thing was terrific.

After leaving the Stray Cats, your first solo album, The Knife Feels Like Justice, explored more of a roots-rock/Americana sound similar to what Springsteen and John Mellencamp were doing.

Yeah, that’s right. I really wanted to explore that area. I changed my guitar tones and wrote some different songs, played different guitars through different amps. That album was transitionary for me. There were some really good songs on it.

If that album had been a big hit, would you have stayed with that sound?

That’s hard to say. I don’t know. It was a Top 10 album, but it didn’t cross over enough, I guess. I’m not embarrassed by it. I just had to see if I could do it, you know? If you wear Levi’s your whole life, you want to try on something new. So I did that. I tried it, and then when I was done I wanted to try something else.

Over the years, you’ve reunited periodically with the Stray Cats, but you’ve also toured with another outfit, the Rockabilly Riot Band, and you’ve turned your Orchestra into a big live attraction. Is there any kind of plan to it all?

A plan? No way! [laughs] I really just do what I want. That’s the level I live on. Let’s say I do something that’s not as popular as the other things. If I can’t get through that month, I sell a guitar, or I get rid of a motorcycle. And then, for some reason, it always comes back. I’ll do something that does really well. I’ve always done what I’ve wanted, and it’s worked out. I never had to slog through some tour I hated or anything like that.

Let’s talk about some of the new Stray Cats songs. In “Cat Fight (Over a Dog Like Me),” you play these unbroken guitar lines under your vocals. How do you strike the balance of playing interesting parts without overwhelming your singing?

To me, if it sounds good, it sounds good. Physically, it’s all pretty natural to me. If I can’t sing at the same time, then I’ll change the part. Or maybe I’ll toss the song off the record. I wouldn’t have a song on the record that I can’t sing and play at the same time.

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“Cry Danger” is the one of the few tracks on the record that doesn’t sound rockabilly per se. The riff feels like a reworking of “Day Tripper.”

That’s the one song where I wanted to push things a bit from a compositional standpoint. I was like, Okay, either people will really like this, or they won’t. Mike Campbell wrote that riff a while back, and absolutely, like you said, it’s like a backwards “Day Tripper.” Mike even said that himself. So I took that riff and started working on the tune, and that’s when I told Mike Himelstein — another Mike — “I want some lyrics that are a little esoteric, not so much about hot rods and chicks.” He came up with great stuff. The song’s a little different for us, and that’s cool.

The guitar solo in “Three Time’s a Charm” is a beautiful mix of jazzy chords and liquid lines. Did you plot it all out, or was it spontaneous?

I’ve got to say, I’m glad you mentioned that solo. I really like that one myself. But no, it wasn’t spontaneous. That solo was pretty well thought out. I was really excited about the song, and I knew it needed a killer solo. I couldn’t just go in and do something off the cuff. That mix of chords and leads — it feels like a good one. I want to play it live.

“I’ll Be Looking Out for You” is another song that veers a bit from rockabilly. There’s a distinct punk/garage rock feel to it.

Oh, yeah. Besides the songs that I wrote for this album, I wrote about eight or nine more that have a bit of a surf-punk feel. That sort of thing has always been in my wheelhouse. I love that twangy, echoey, reverb-y guitar sound. That’s surf punk.

Speaking of echo and reverb, the instrumental “Desperado” is bathed in those sounds.

It sounds like the surf music and spaghetti westerns I was talking about. That’s all from the blonde Fender Reverb Unit I was using when I started writing the album. That sound is just so inspiring for writing.

Have you incorporated the Fender Reverb Unit into your live set-up?

As far as the live rig goes, every time I try to vary what I’m using, it never seems to go over. That Bassman has to be there — it’s just the right sound — and I use the Roland Space Echo. The Fender Reverb Unit doesn’t work so well live. You put that thing on certain stages, and if there’s a slightest bounce, it’s gonna go off. And man, let me tell you, that’s like an explosion! [laughs] So live, I use the reverb in the Space Echo. It’s not as good as the Fender, but it’s more convenient.

You’ve released several lines of signature Gretsch guitars. What did you use on 40?

Well, I can’t stray too much from that ’59 Gretsch. I love that sound. I’ve got a green sparkle Hot Rod that I used on quite a few tracks. It’s thin sounding, which I like. People always say it’s too thin, but to me, thin sounding is good because it cuts through everything. I also used a ’56 White Penguin. That could be the first time a White Penguin has ever been recorded.

So I used those guitars and a few different amps. A lot of the reverb you hear is from an old Fender Deluxe. I don’t use that on “Desperado” — on that I used a Supro. But I still go back to my ’63 Bassman. That’s the ticket for me. There was just something about those things. The one I have is pretty much like the amp I bought at 17. You get a stock Bassman that hasn’t had its transformers replaced, and you’re good to go.

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If a young player wanted to study rockabilly, who would you direct him to? Besides yourself, that is.

Oh, there are a few cool guys. As far as modern players go, there’s Jim Heath from Reverend Horton Heat. He puts a real punk spin on rockabilly. And there’s a Canadian gent, Paul Pigat, from Cousin Harley. He’s really great. And Darrel Higham, he’s a U.K. guy — another good one! Those are probably the best modern rockabilly players out there. They each bring their own style to it. But I have to go back to the original guys: Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup. They’re my favorites.

Is there anything about your playing style you wish you could improve?

Hmm… That’s a good question. If anything, I think I could leave some more holes. It’s not like we’re patching a roof, you know? I could leave a little more space sometimes. When I hear some of my older playing, I like it, but sometimes I think I overplayed. So I could probably slow down a bit, play a little less. But you know how it is. You get onstage and you’re all excited, and you just wanna keep playing. But I’m getting there. I’m getting more seasoned. [laughs

SWEET GIG

Tyler Sweet reflects on his 13 years as Brian Setzer’s guitar tech

By Jude Gold

Tyler Sweet and Setzer pose with the guitarist’s stage rig, which includes four Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo units, a RE-201 Space Echo, and Setzer’s Fender Bassman Amp and cabinet.

Tyler Sweet and Setzer pose with the guitarist’s stage rig, which includes four Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo units, a RE-201 Space Echo, and Setzer’s Fender Bassman Amp and cabinet.

Like most great guitar techs, Tyler Sweet’s main goal during a show is to be onstage as little as possible. But when your boss is rockabilly rebel Brian Setzer, you can’t always predict what’s going to happen when the house lights go down, as Sweet discovered during one of his first European tours with the Stray Cats.

“It was 2007 or so, and we were doing rehearsals in Balboa, Spain,” Sweet says. “I had finally succeeded in getting Brian on a wireless, which meant I wouldn’t have to run out onstage to chase cable anymore while he was performing. And I had that wireless working perfectly.

“But the day before the first show, Brian says, ‘Hey, Ty, I’ll be on a cable tomorrow, right?’ I guess he likes things the way they were when he first started the Stray Cats. So the next night, there I am before the show, once again gaffing down the cable in strategic places to prevent it from getting caught when he moves around. In the middle of the concert, Brian suddenly hops through his two vocal wedges and then starts heading left along the front of the stage, knowing full well that the cable dragging behind him is about to get snagged. I run out and fix the situation just in time and then, over the music, I kind of say to him, ‘What the hell? You did that on purpose.’ And he says back, ‘Ty, you’re part of the show!’ I tell him, ‘I don’t want to be part of the show!’ ”

Sweet was also pulled into the show during a stint in Japan several years ago, when the Fender Bassman Setzer was plugged into suddenly failed.

“As soon as that amp blew up,” Sweet says, “Brian announced to the audience, ‘Watch how fast Ty can fix this,’ and the whole audience started chanting, ‘Ty! Ty! Ty!’ It took me about a minute and a half to get a backup rig out from side stage and powered up in center stage. These days, I keep an identical rig — amp, cab and Roland RE-301 tape echo — set up right behind the first rig as a backup. If you’re looking straight on, you probably can’t even see that there’s a backup there. Now, if the first amp blows, I can get Brian up and running again in as little as 30 seconds.”

Since the Japan meltdown, he has yet to have another amp go down. “That’s because the Fender Bassman is such a stable circuit,” says Sweet, who typically brings four of Setzer’s treasured early- ’60s Bassman heads (including matching 2x12 cabinets) out on the road. “They’re the ones from about ’62 to ’63 that have the 6G6-B circuit with the nice midrange. Brian loves the way those sound. And as long as you do a little maintenance on them, such as testing the tubes and cleaning the sockets, they’re going to work. And if anything blows up on that simple point-to-point board, it’s easy to fix. The Bassman is like a diesel car engine — it’ll run forever.”

Setzer’s sound naturally starts in his hands, where he uses signature medium-gauge cellulose PickWorld picks to strike .010–.046 sets of D’Addario strings. Shockingly, Sweet changes Setzer’s strings only about once a year.

“I used to change strings every night,” he says. “But there was a Montreal Jazz Festival gig we did where Brian’s main guitar” — the orange ’59 Gretsch 6120 Setzer has been playing since he was a teenager — “for some reason did not arrive until right before the show. The strings were kind of dead, but the gig was going to be filmed, so I made a game-time decision to not change them, because there just wasn’t time for me to fully stretch them and get them settled enough that they’d stay in tune for a full show. I knew I’d have to come out there after four or five songs and give him a different guitar. Brian was not thrilled.”

The ensuing concert, however, proved to be “incredible,” Sweet says. “Brian called me into his dressing room after the show and asked me what I had done to the guitar, and I told him, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘Well, don’t ever change the strings again unless absolutely necessary, because that’s the sound.’ Now, I hardly ever change them. The current set has about 70 shows on them. One reason they last so long is that Brian has a surprisingly light touch. Even with those bends he does, it takes forever for pits to develop in his frets.”

Sweet’s preferred “leash” — his term for the instrument cable he puts Setzer on — comprises 30 feet of Belden cable and a SwitchCraft Silent Plug (enabling noiseless guitar swaps), and it goes from the guitar straight into one of Setzer’s early ’80s Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo units, which he runs straight into the input of the active Bassman head.

“We have about 10 RE-301s working right now, and we keep four more around for parts,” explains Sweet, who has a love/hate relationship with the devices. “You learn different tricks to keep them working, but they’re tape echoes, so they are a bit delicate, which can be frustrating. I once had a bad dream where 10 of them fell on me.”

Growing up in Boston, Sweet began in the music business at age 13, when he got a job helping to refinish pianos. He soon learned to play guitar and went on to tech for a range of headliners, including Carlos Santana, Chrissie Hynde, Robert Randolph, Susan Tedeschi, Jefferson Starship and Yngwie Malmsteen. Sweet’s longest gig by far, though, has been with Brian Setzer.

“When the job came up to work for Brian, I jumped at it, because I’ve always been a fan of his,” Sweet says. “He’s both a great guitar player and a great guy. No matter what happens, he is never negative to me or angry with me. Even if his number-one guitar gets scratched, he says, ‘Big deal. Battle wound.’ Or if a tape echo goes down in the middle of a song, he doesn’t get upset — he understands that things get smacked around on the road and break. When that happens, he always tells the audience the same thing: ‘What can I say? I like old shit!’ Luckily, in the 13 years I’ve worked for Brian, I’ve heard that comment only a half a dozen times or less.”

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