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Brian Setzer has his "Rumble"

"Gotta Have the Rumble," Brian Setzer’s first new studio album in seven years, is a model of excellence, seasoned musicianship colliding with immaculate songcraft. Join us for an exclusive conversation with the frontman of The Stray Cats and king of rockabilly.
Brian Setzer, 2021

Brian Setzer, 2021

By Ken Sharp

40 years ago with the launch of MTV, Brian Setzer first came to the attention of music fans as the guitar slinging leader of the Stray Cats. The band’s authentic rockabilly magic paired with a contemporary punch launched them into stardom with timeless hits “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut.” Upon the group’s demise in the mid-’80s, Setzer stretched out artistically, forging his own identity, carving out considerable success with his beloved swing outfit, the Brian Setzer Orchestra. He also lent his guitar prowess to records by the likes of Robert Plant (The Honeydrippers), Glen Campbell, Rickie Lee Jones, Warren Zevon and even Twisted Sister.

Gotta Have the Rumble, Setzer’s first new studio album in seven years, is a model of excellence, seasoned musicianship colliding with immaculate songcraft. Join us for a glimpse into an exclusive conversation with the king of rockabilly. [The full unedited interview ran in the December 2021 issue of Goldmine,]

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GOLDMINE: We live in a world where people have very limited attention spans. So if someone is not that familiar with your history and was told to check out Brian Setzer’s new record — but they only had five minutes —what’s the track from the new album you’d play to try to hook them into the record?

BRIAN SETZER: I would say, “You wanna hear what I do, check out ‘Stack My Money.’” I’d play them that because a lot of the other songs are for fans and people that have heard me throughout my career, and some of them stretch the boundaries. But “Stack My Money” is pretty much straight down the middle modern rockabilly music. It’s got the slap bass. It’s got the grinding Gretsch guitar. So I would throw them a fastball and say, “Hit this one: ‘Stack My Money.’”

GM: Well, the one that hit me the first time hearing the record is “The Wrong Side of the Tracks,” which I think is brilliant. It’s a song you wrote with a guy who collaborated quite a bit on the record, Mike Himelstein.

BS: Old people like that one. (laughs) After I wrote it, I went, “Gosh, it sounds like it should be in West Side Story.” (laughs) It’s like a film noir song. I felt like it could have accompanied some kind of film noir movie but it’s rockabilly. I always have to stay in that rockabilly zone and then I kind of branch out. And that’s got something that’s like a composition. You know, those are chords that one of the big guys would have written, like (Leonard) Bernstein or something. It has that film noir, soundtrack kind of a feel.

GM: Going back to your work since the Stray Cats. there’s always been that seam of storytelling in your music. Who are the storytellers who inspired that approach?

BS: Well, musically, if I want to write something cinematic, I listened to the old film noir classic. You know what I mean? All those soundtracks by the masters of that genre. So Elmer Bernstein, the guy who wrote The Man with the Golden Arm, those are masterpieces of soundtracks. All the spaghetti Westerns by Ennio Morricone. Those are masterpieces and that’s way beyond rock and roll. It just is. So to be inspired by that, that will give you those kind of dark themes. It’s symphonic and that’s way past something in a three-piece format. It just is.

GM: “Drip Drop” sounds like a song that’s always been a part of the fabric of our musical past.

BS: Oh, thanks. If my daughter says, “Dad, I love that song,” I know I’ve written a good one (laughs) because, you know, kids don’t dole out the praise. Because I live close to where Buddy Holly did his last show, and also Eddie Cochran, I live pretty close to where he’s from (Albert Lea, Minnesota). So I was thinking, I’d like to write a kind of Buddy Holly inspired little song with a hiccup in it. I was just watching the icicles drop. Yeah, I was just watching the icicles melt and felt spring will soon be here because we have such long winters in Minnesota and then I started singing “Drip Drop.”

GM: That’s the thing that I think has always separated you from a lot of the other great guitar gunslingers is how it’s not just about guitar playing with you, it’s about creating lasting songs of immeasurable quality. I think that that’s what sets you apart. There’s always the essence of a really well-constructed song itself.

BS: The hardest thing about songwriting is to write something simple that hasn’t been written. How many times can you say love? It’s been written since time began, so to take something and write about a theme and it doesn’t matter what gets you there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a car going fast, the adrenaline gets you there or love or anger. The emotion that gets you to the point where you get enough going to write the song.

I’ve said before, I can’t write a song while I’m taking a shower, something’s got to really get me going and excite me. And the hardest thing is to write a simple song that hasn’t been written. The other thing about taking a genre like rockabilly is to not leave it in the ’50s, same thing with the blues. How do you make it sound modern and also make it sound like you? That’s the hardest thing to do. You have to kind of take different influences, different styles. And how I do that, I can’t tell you, because it just happens, you know. I say, “Oh the songbird’s here, thank you” (laughs) and he’ll fly away. I get this little nugget of an idea and that snowballs.

Early Stray Cats portrait (L-R): Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom. 

Early Stray Cats portrait (L-R): Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom. 

GM: You enlisted your Stray Cats bandmate, Slim Jim Phantom, to write the lyrics for the album’s first single, “Checkered Flag.” Man, talk about some incredibly evocative lyrics with the first few lines, “Your Daddy says I’m no good. He doesn’t know what’s under my hood” and then a little later, “can’t be humble, gotta have the rumble.”

BS: Well, you see, you get it. A lot of people ask me, “That song’s about a car, right?”

GM: You’re just using the car as a metaphor.

BS: Exactly. It’s about the feeling. It’s about that emotion. And I agree with you because I called up Jim. I go, “Hey, Jim, you got any lyrics?” Because we talk all the time. He goes, “Let me get back to you.” And he sent me that and I go, “Well, where have you been, man?” He’s fantastic. And when I get lit up with that, the song just happens that quick. So I’ll have a guitar riff laying around, and I wrote the song in 10 minutes.

GM: Obviously, it all goes back to Chuck Berry where the car was used as a metaphor for freedom and adventure. But what is it about automobiles and motorcycles that makes it such rich source for songwriters?

BS: To me, it’s two things, adrenaline and the ability to take those things you’re talking about and customize them. So I’ve got a couple of hot rods and there’s no two that look alike. It’s an artistic expression. You can go out and buy a Bentley or something and that only takes money. Anyone’s who’s got money can buy an expensive car, but to build a hot rod, that’s a personal vision of how you want it to look. It’s art. It’s rolling art. And then it’s the adrenaline. For me when I get on my motorcycles, just get out there, put a little throttle into that corner, you get a rush. It’s the rush. And that gets me going, and it gets me able to do things like write songs and live life.

GM: Every musician dreams about making it, and you’re one of the fortunate ones to grab the brass ring. Looking back, was there a pivotal decision you made in your career that set you on the path to stardom?

BS: I always joke and I always say, “Shoot, I chose the wrong style of music. If I had chosen heavy metal or hard rock, I’d be living on a beach somewhere.” (laughs) I had to do it the hard way. You choose the style that nobody even knew existed. But that’s me. You know, I couldn’t go against myself. When I chose it, or it chose me, was in the late ’70s. It’s a funny thing about rockabilly music. People become obsessed with it, especially in Europe or if you ever been to Viva Las Vegas (festivals). It’s not just about wearing ’50s clothes or driving around in an old car. People become obsessed with the music. I don’t see it with other kinds of music. People are at a festival and they’re throwing a beach ball, and they got a beer helmet on and the music is background. Not with rockabilly. People become obsessed with this music. It’s sexy. It gives you a kick. It has great musicianship. There’s a simplicity of it. It just has the right ingredients.

GM: If you could go back in history and be a fly on the wall for one recording session for a favorite song or a favorite album, what would you pick?

BS: Oh, I know this sounds off the wall, but I think I’d like to be in a Beatle session, because I pretty much got the picture of how they made the records of the ’50s. It was all vibe. Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall when The Beatles recorded “Strawberry Fields” or something? What the hell was going on there? I’d like to go back to Abbey Road and see what the hell they were they doing. Were they really just playing the four of them doing that? Amazing.

December 2021 cover

For the full version of this interview, with glossy color photos, get the December 2021 issue of Goldmine with Brian Setzer on the cover (above) — click here to order it in the Goldmine store.