Interview by Lee Sobel
(c) Lo-Fi Magazine #5, 1997
Lee Sobel: Swing music seems to be making a big comeback, especially on
the west coast. The movie “Swingers” seems to be adding more fuel to this
and your own big band swings in a mighty way — can you account for why
music is making such a comeback and why now?
Brian Setzer: I can’t account for anything. (laughs) I just try to keep track of
my car and not have anything else stolen. I can’t account for the timing, no,
except that musically it’s never made a comeback before. It falls into the
rockabilly genre, in that it’s in our roots in America here, and it’s been with
us for years. It’s on television, and you realize fifteen years later, “Oh, ‘Sing,
Sing, Sing’ was on that Rice Krispies commercial?” It’s just kind of ingrained
in us. It’s that part of the American music experience that really hasn't really
been exploited yet. It's comin' around real hard. It's definitely coming back.
Lee Sobel: What is the swing scene like in California?
Brian Setzer: What's it like? Well, when I play it's a mix of everything. It's not just a couple thousand kids in zoos suits. It's surfers, hipsters, people of different mentalities. The top cities for it seem to be Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and L.A.
Lee Sobel: I think the reaction to your second big band record seems to be stronger than it was to the first one. Do you think there’s more of an audience now than there was when the first record came out?
Brian Setzer: I think the second one is a better record. I think I had more of a grasp on it, with the chart writing, where I put the horns on the record, etc. Also the audience knows what I am a little more now. The first time around I don’t think anybody knew what it was. I know I booked some gigs in ‘92 and people asked me, “Well, what’s a big band? Does it have two drummers and background vocalists?” They had no idea what a big band was. Just like rockabilly in the late seventies. Nobody knew what the word meant.
Lee Sobel: Do they know what it means now?
Brian Setzer: Yeah, definitely. It’s funny how this business works. By the
time the hipsters are sick of the whole swing thing it’s just gonna be
hittin’ Des Moines. That’s part of the way it goes with music: the hip
crowd grasps it years before it happens. I think it’s gonna happen in
Lee Sobel: Did you lose interest in rockabilly or did you just decide
you wanted to do the swing thing.
Brian Setzer: I never lost interest in rockabilly. It’s what I am. I consider
myself a rockabilly. For me, the Stray Cats were on their last life there.
We didn’t have a record deal. It was down to making demos. We were
on a long, long tour where we were out for years. We were definitely
tired. The big band bug was just starting to get in my ear. I always wanted to do it, so I thought I would pursue this and just see what happens. I did not anticipate playing more than two shows with it. I didn’t think I’d be able to get the musicians, not to mention paying them all. It’s just managed to keep growing somehow.
Lee Sobel: Did you think about doing a Stray Cats big band with the Stray Cats or did you just want to make a break from that and start over and do something else?
Brian Setzer: I never really considered that when I started it and the reasons aren’t personal. I had no idea what those guys would even think about it. I know when I started it they definitely wanted to take a break and I didn’t. I wanted to keep playing. To be honest with you, it requires a lot of reading that goes down and I’m sure those guys could play this kind of stuff, but at the time I didn’t want to fool around. I needed guys who could read this stuff and could also rock. I had to get the whole package, if you know what I mean. It’s hard to explain, except that these musicians often come in pairs. Like one guy might say he works with a certain drummer.
Lee Sobel: Was it hard for you in a way to end that facet of your career?
Brian Setzer: Well, it didn’t seem like I was ending anything. I left with
the intention that we would play again when the time was right. I think
a lot of people would like to see the Cats again and they will when I
feel the time is right.
Lee Sobel: You clearly have not let go completely of the Stray Cats
since you have rearranged some of your older rockabilly tunes. That
must be fun for you.
Brian Setzer: Yeah, they’re like new songs to me. For me to play “Rock
This Town,” with this incredible chart I had Pat Williams write, it feels like
a new song. To just cop the way the Cats did it, it wouldn’t be a better
song. You wouldn’t be able to do it better rockabilly style.
Lee Sobel: How much work goes in to arranging for a big band? Do you have help to do all the preparation?
Brian Setzer: It’s kind of like painting a house: it’s all in the prep. It’s all in the preparation with the band; it isn’t studio gimmickry. It’s all about getting those charts right, getting a balance, then going out and making a record. Writing the charts is a big deal.
Lee Sobel: And you do it yourself?
Brian Setzer: No, I do it with the trombone player, Mark Jones. It’s a long process.
Lee Sobel: How did you pick the musicians in your big band?
Brian Setzer: Well, basically these were the guys who came to bat five
years ago. Most of those guys are still in the band. Some of the guys
didn’t work and it’s tough because it seems like you’re telling top players
that they aren’t good enough or something. That’s not the case, they just
aren’t right for the band. Most of the guys got that I wasn’t trying to do the
Glenn Miller Orchestra. I was trying to rock ‘n roll the big band up. Once
they saw the live reaction I think they really understood it. That’s when
the band became a band.
Lee Sobel: So you guys are all one big happy family when you’re on
Brian Setzer: Really, we are. I know that’s hard to imagine when a three piece rock ‘n roll bands fight, but it’s a different mentality with these guys. They’re a little older and they’re experienced musicians and they come from the jazz world, so it’s more the drinking scotch and smoking cigars and shooting craps world. There aren’t a lot of personal conflicts going on. Everybody’s there to have a good time.
Lee Sobel: Do you keep in touch with Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker?
Brian Setzer:I spoke to Jim about a week ago. He’s got a
new band going, 13 Cats. He’s happy. I’m glad he’s
playing. I haven’t spoken to Lee in a while. Lee lives
down in Orange County. He has a family, two kids. It’s
not like we’re still eighteen years old, looking for old
records and clothes anymore together. Everyone’s got
a family. Jim’s a little more swingin’ ‘cause he’s a bachelor,
so he calls me more often.
Lee Sobel: You yourself have a family, right?
Brian Setzer: Yeah, I’ve got a nine year old son named Cody and I’ve got a little girl on the way.
Lee Sobel: Is your son into the music?
Brian Setzer: My son? He’s an outdoor kid, he’s a surfer dude. He’s got a surfboard. We motocross together. We’ve got two dirt bikes and we go out to the desert on the weekend. We just disappear way out in the desert. I love it. I love the peace and quiet.
Lee Sobel: You must not get a lot of time to yourself. You seem to be out on the road a lot.
Brian Setzer: Well, I’m not out on the road that much but a lot of little things pop up. Like the Schwarzenegger movie, “Jingle All the Way.” I did four songs on the soundtrack. First they asked me to do one and Lou Rawls wanted to sing it, then it just sort of snowballed into being four different tracks. Something like that will take up a
month of your time. I’ve been getting a lot of movie things lately. This new movie
“McHale’s Navy" with Tom Arnold, they’re gonna use “The House Is Rockin’.” That’s kind
of neat. This David Schwimmer movie asked for an arrangement. There’s a new movie
with Angie Dickinson they asked me to do the score for. That’s very exciting to me
because I’ve never done that before. I feel like Mancini or something. It’s great because
you’re not locked into a song. You’re talking about a score where you're creating a
mood and images. It’s a real challenge. I like trying new things.
Lee Sobel: Have you ever thought about doing any acting?
Brian Setzer: That’s the one thing I don’t want to do. I want
to keep on the music end of it.
Lee Sobel: Brian, how old are you?
Brian Setzer: Thirty-seven.
Lee Sobel: How old were you when you made it?
Brian Setzer: I was twenty-one when I had my first hit record.
Lee Sobel: What was it like to have success come that young for you?
Brian Setzer: It was good and bad. People who have
never had it happen to them have said, “If it happened
to me, I wouldn’t have done this or acted like that.” But
you can’t help it, you’re twenty-one years old. The good
part was I actually realized a dream. I played rockabilly
music in 1980 and I created something unique and I
actually made it successful. That was such a satisfying
hing, y’know? The downside was all the bitterness and
ealousy that follows all that. Then the press turns on you
and you start to feel like maybe it’s your fault. You don’t
realize that it happens to everyone. When you’re
twenty-one you just feel like you’ve done something
wrong when actually you’ve done nothing wrong. That stings.
Lee Sobel: What was the highest point in your career for you?
Brian Setzer: “Runaway Boys” was both a high point and a low one. That seems to be my life. I was in Liverpool and I got a phone call. They said “I’ve got incredible news and I’ve got devastating news.” I said you’d better tell me the incredible news first. “Runaway Boys’ is number nine on the U.K. charts.” Well, what could be so bad, I asked. “John Lennon was just shot and killed.” It was a day I was in Liverpool of all places. So it was a real mixed feeling. Another high point I remember was hearing it come on the radio in America for the first time. I had really wanted to make it here. I was driving my car on the Southern State Parkway in Long Island and “Runaway Boys” came on the radio. This was just after I’d moved back from England in about ‘81. I went “Holy shit, they’re playing my music on the radio.” That’s one of those things that you never forget.
Lee Sobel: What were you like back then as opposed to now?
Brian Setzer: I think I took everything a lot more seriously then. We had something we really wanted to prove back then. The clothes had to be perfect, the hair, and the music. I still like the same stuff, but I probably take life a lot easier. Now that I know how the game works out in the music world I’ve developed a tougher skin and I don’t take it all as seriously.
Lee Sobel: So success in the beginning was good and bad.
Brian Setzer: Well, it was pretty wild. There I was on the top. We had
the first album come out. Then it was, “Okay, Brian, what’s next?” Jeez,
you know, we weren’t playing softball anymore, we were in first place.
Lee Sobel: No pressure...
Brian Setzer: Yeah, just write twelve more great songs! Oh shit! To me,
it’s always been about the songs.
Lee Sobel: Is it more easy or more difficult to write songs now?
Brian Setzer: There is no formula. I mean, if I could say have a hot
shower, come down, have a cup of coffee, and write a song, everybody’d
do it. I’ve been on a roll where I had seven new songs, but then I’ve had months and months where I wasn’t able to get something going. That’s tough, because like I said, it’s all about the songs.
Lee Sobel: You’ve been in the record business a good seventeen years now. When did you actually get your start in music?
Brian Setzer: I was about seventeen, I started doing this Tom Cats thing, the early version of the Stray Cats.
Lee Sobel: I saw the Bloodless Pharaohs back in 1978 when I was 16 at Max’s Kansas City. You were a young kid playing those clubs.
Brian Setzer: Yeah, I guess I was.
Lee Sobel: What prompted you to go to England then?
Brian Setzer:I saw an issue of New Musical Express (N.M.E.) and there was
rockabilly on the cover. I saw this guy with a pompadour and an earring. That
was explosive in 1978. No one looked like that. I said, wow, other people know
what we are, and I did not know about these other people, so that planted the
seed in the back of my head that that was the place we had to go. That was
where they would know what we were. I mean in 1978 on Long Island we got
beat up for the way that we looked. We looked like we were from Mars. So I
thought we had a shot in England. I mean, around that time on Long Island the
bands were all copying Emerson Lake & Palmer, and they had long hair and salamis in their pants. They had P.A. systems too, which we couldn’t afford. We used to sing through a Fender amp. In the midst of all this glam rock stuff, we convinced the bartender at this club to put us up and just give us whatever he got at the door. We started to draw some big crowds and we were doing really well. We really bucked the trend back then. Sure, we played Max’s and CBGB’s when we could, but our meat and potatoes back then were clubs on Long Island; that’s where we made our money. We’d just find places and as a joke we’d say, this place looks really square, let’s see if we can convince the bartender to let us play. Slim Jim knows all the stories, he has a great memory.
Lee Sobel: All three of you were from Massapequa, Long Island?
Brian Setzer: Yeah,
we all went to high
Lee Sobel: So you’ve known each other since you were little kids.
Brian Setzer: Well, Jim and Lee are two years younger than
me, so they were hanging out with my brother Gary. So I’ve
known those guys since they were ten years old. At the time
we weren’t friends with each other because at fourteen you
wouldn’t hang out with a twelve year old. They started hanging
around when I was first playing these clubs, doing the rockabilly
rebel thing, wearing crazy clothes and wild hair, an earring, I got
a tattoo. I was doing everything from Hank Williams to rockabilly,
even some Supremes songs. Crowd pleasing stuff, then I snuck my rockabilly in there. So those two started hanging around and they were the only two who were dressed up as rockabillies, so I immediately walked up to them on the break.
Lee Sobel: So what happened when you moved to England?
Brian Setzer: Well, it didn’t happen right away. We had played around and then we met this guy who was a bartender in Philadelphia who was an English teddy boy. He wanted to bring me over there; he didn’t want to bring the whole band. So I said I wouldn’t go. Eventually he worked it out so we could stay at his mom’s house out in the suburbs of London. We sold everything we owned to Sam Ash so we could go. Everything except my Gretsch, Lee’s bass, and Jim’s drums. We just got on a plane and left.
Lee Sobel: How difficult was it to survive when you first moved to London with
the Stray Cats?
Brian Setzer:We slept in Hyde Park some nights. We’d pick up a chick and
ask her to put us up. I remember staying in the Scala, an all-night movie
theater in Soho. We really bummed around. You know, kid shit. When you’re
eighteen years old you don’t mind that.
Lee Sobel: How long were you in London before somebody said, ”Let’s record
Brian Setzer: Well, we almost didn’t make it. We almost turned back. We
couldn’t land a gig. Then this band The Fabulous Poodles did us a favor and
let us open for them. They were a really good band, they had a hit song called
“Mirror Star.” It was really weird: from that first opening gig we were huge. I
remember Chrissie Hynde was down there, Pete Farndon who became my
Lee Sobel: I met him when I was in England just before he died.
Brian Setzer: We were really good friends, you know, we were rockers in England. We’d take twenty five guys on bikes and ride down to the seaside. It was like something out of “Quadrophenia.”
Lee Sobel: So then when did you get signed to record?
Brian Setzer: Well, all the record companies started coming around to the gigs, but first the rockabillies started to come around, and it wasn’t the old cats, it was like skinheads who were growing their hair and punks who were cutting t their hair. I remember distinctly that they all wore western shirts. Maybe they could get them and thought it was really American to do. Then the record companies came around and I really wanted to go with Stiff Records because I really liked that Dave Robinson guy. He understood rockabilly. But I was 20, so I listened to my manager and we signed with Arista over there. We met Dave Edmunds at the Venue and Dave actually talked us into letting him produce us, which was the best thing that ever happened to us. He gave us a modern sound, yet it borrowed all the best stuff from the 5O’s. I think he made some of our best records.
Lee Sobel: Are you still in touch with him?
Brian Setzer: Yeah, I just spoke to Dave a couple weeks ago.
Lee Sobel: How did you first get interested in rockabilly music?
Brian Setzer: My first exposure to it was really through my mom
and dad without really knowing it. My dad was in Korea and
he met country guys there and brought back Carl Perkins and
Johnny Cash records. They were kicking around the house.
My mom was an Elvis fan. I didn’t want to acknowledge I liked
it because it was my parents’ music. So then I heard the Beatles
and the Stones. My dad came in singing “Honey Don’t” along
with a Beatles record and I said, “Hey wait a minute, how do
you know that song?” He said, “Well, that’s Carl Perkins.” That’s when I went out and started buying all the records and went “Wow, listen to all this great music!” It was like a bell went off in my head. A light bulb went on. I totally related to it somehow.
Lee Sobel: Do you listen to any of the current rockabilly bands like The Belmont Playboys or The Atomics?
Brian Setzer: Yeah, I listen to a lot of stuff. People give me their CDs.
Lee Sobel: Any chance that you'll put any neo-rockabilly bands on the bill with you to give rockabilly the boost that it needs & deserves?
Brian Setzer: Yeah, I
always try to put on either
a rockabilly or swing band. But you can’t always do it. The club owners will not always let you put on who you want. The opening bill is just a lose-lose situation, because if you put on a rockabilly or swing band there’s always another one that’s pissed because you didn’t put them on.
Lee Sobel: Do you have any interest in producing any upcoming swing
or rockabilly bands?
Brian Setzer: I do. I don’t think I’m a very good producer, though,
because I’m very impatient in the studio. I don’t want to sit around. I
was never good at that. I know what I want to hear but I’m not good at
waiting around to get it. I
always thought Lee was
good at that because
Lee was very patient. He can sit there and twiddle. I was the one who’d
just get out the energy and get the hell out of there. But I am going to produce my brother Gary’s band. He sent me two great songs and I’m waiting for some more. I wrote two or three songs for him too.
Lee Sobel: What do you think of Lee Rocker’s band Big Blue?
Brian Setzer: I really liked his first record. I don’t know if he's still got the same band or not.
Lee Sobel: He’s put out two records as Big Blue.
I didn't hear the second one. I just heard the first one that
he sent me. I really liked it. Lee is about the best rockabilly
bass player you’re ever gonna hear. Between him and
Slim Jim they had a chemistry there and had the rhythm
section nailed down.
Lee Sobel: Is it fun for you to come back and play New
York now that you live in Los Angeles?
Brian Setzer: I’ll tell you, playing New York is the hardest
thing for me because I really don’t get nervous playing.
But playing in front of my family, I get nervous. You just
want to be the best you can and your mom is there.
Lee Sobel: Did you buy your parents a Cadillac like Elvis when you made it big?
Brian Setzer: I did buy my parents a car, but it wasn’t a Cadillac. My old man didn’t want a Cadillac, he just wanted a new car.
Lee Sobel: How is your collection of vintage cars and tattoos coming along? Any new additions?
Brian Setzer: I just got two new additions as far as cars and tattoos. I just bought a chopped Deuce Coupe, a ‘ '32 Ford that I’m actually painting myself. I’m gonna make it look real late-fifties style, though I’ve never seen one done up the way I’m gonna do it. I guess I do the same thing with cars that I try to do with music. I try to take the best things that I like from the 50’s and the rest of it is just my own style. I’ve also got an old ‘48 Indian. I don’t drive that around L.A., it’s too crazy. I just drive
it around the desert. In terms of tattoos, I just got a hula girl on
my calf. I’m gonna have a whole Polynesian theme up my leg.
Lee Sobel: How did you hook up with Joe Strummer? Did you
know him in England?
Brian Setzer: Not really. A little bit. I really hooked up with him
because he’s got a ‘55 Caddy that we just wrote a song about,
it’s pretty funny: “It’s got a leaky carburetor, a rusted out floor,
four broken windows and bullet holes in the door/The lights
don’t even work and the lock don’t fit the key/So baby who
would love this car but me.” I met him because he wanted to
fix this car and get the brakes done so he called me. I was the
only guy he knew of who had old cars here. So we just kind of
hit it off and started hanging around. I think as a thank you for fixing his car he wrote me some lyrics to a song and we just started writing songs. We just hang out and have a cigar and a whiskey. We got on stage one time with Chrissie Hynde when the Pretenders played.
Lee Sobel: Do you get bugged when you go out in public?
Brian Setzer: Well, I don’t consider it being bugged, but people come up to me all the time. It’s happened a lot more in the past year than ever before. The big band has been out there on TV a lot and people are starting to recognize me again. That’s a good thing.
Lee Sobel: What’s it been like to perform on Conan O’Brien and other late night shows?
Brian Setzer: Conan is the best one because he’s a rockabilly. When I got there he was all excited because he bought a new Gretsch guitar. They’ve got this fantastic sound person there. Getting a seventeen piece band on these shows is a real hassle for them, so they were all excited to have us. But David Letterman is not a rockabilly guy, y’know? When he heard us he totally went “Wow! Can we get this band on here every night?” Leno’s good because he sticks you in the corner and lets you turn your amp up as loud as you want.
Lee Sobel: Have you met all your rockabilly heroes?
Brian Setzer: I met pretty much all the rockabilly guys. You know how with some people
you meet you wished you hadn’t met them? I haven’t met any rockabilly like that. They’ve
all just been great. They don’t all play anymore. I met Dickie Harrell from the Blue Caps —-
Dickie’s a fireman now. We’re talking about forty years ago for these guys. Only a handful
of ‘em still play.
Lee Sobel: You also hung out with Keith Richards,
Brian Setzer: He’s not rockabilly...
Lee Sobel: Really, you mean Keith’s not a rockabilly? (laughs)
Brian Setzer: Actually, when I walked in he was blasting the Sun Sessions. He handed me a gun and we went out and shot rats. That’s pretty fuckin’ rockabilly, pal.
Lee Sobel: You grew up in New York, lived in London, and now California. What’s your favorite of the three and why?
Brian Setzer:I grew up in Massapequa, Long Island, lived in England, then
came back and moved to L.A. I like all three. When London was happening
it was pretty hard to beat. I definitely miss the New York/East Coast way of
thinking. I miss East Coast people. But there’s so much great music out here
right now, surf bands, swing, rockabilly. I love hopping in an old car and
going to see a band. I can always look forward to doing that. It’s not just a
matter of selling records or making records, it’s great to have something you
Lee Sobel: What brand of cigar do you like?
Brian Setzer: What do I like or what can I afford? I like Cohibas, they’re probably the best cigar around but they’re like twenty-five bucks a pop. Macanudos are pretty good. Or a nice Dunhill, that’s a pretty good smoke.
Lee Sobel: When is the next record coming out?
Brian Setzer: This year. I’m starting to write the charts now.
Lee Sobel: Keep rockin’, baby!
Brian Setzer: You too. Nice talking to you, Lo-Fi Lee.