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"I won't go so far as to say there are mosh pits," says Brian Setzer of audiences for his rockin' Big Band, "but this is definitely not a sit-down thing."
From posh clubs in New York to steamy rock dives in Cleveland to outdoor festivals and amphitheaters in Southern California to prestigious jazz festivals in Montreal and Europe, the 17-piece Brian Setzer Orchestra has been tearing it up and bringing down the house. With five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, bass, drums, and one very electric guitar, this Big Band is revolutionizing rock 'n' roll for everyone from teenagers to fiftysomethings. Setzer, undoubtedly the most tattooed Big Band leader in history, is redefining musical "cool."
On Guitar Slinger (Interscope Records), its second album and first on Interscope, produced by the legendary Phil Ramone (Count Basie, Paul Simon, Sinead O'Connor, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney), the Brian Setzer Orchestra combines several musical elements to cook up Setzer's unique Big Band sound: classic Count Basie, the jump blues of Louis Jordan, and Setzer,'s own definition of American roots rock 'n' roll.
"I didn't go into this looking at it like a novelty," says Setzer, whose albums have sold more than eight million copies worldwide. "I didn't know how many records we might sell or gigs we might do. But I knew this was musically valid. It's something totally new but if we were good, people who saw it would get it and it'd fly somehow. It's been a huge undertaking but it's been worth it. How many people can say they did something that had never been done before?"
For Setzer, the project is not about reliving the past but reviving the present. "This is about rock first," he says. "Rock in a Big Band, playing as loud as any rock band I've ever heard, not jazz first or swing first." Unlike the Brian Setzer Orchestra's enormously-praised 1994 self-titled debut album, Guitar Slinger has more originals than covers and the subject matter is the stuff of rock 'n' roll: Desperate people living on the edge, dangerous women in stiletto heels, and rebels named Johnny Kool.
This isn't the first time Setzer has resurrected a genre. The Stray Cats were responsible not only for the return of rockabilly but the style explosion that accompanied it. He sees the same thing happening with his Big Band audiences. "I call it 'Kustom Lifestyle.' They dig roots music, they dig where this Big Band comes from, they'll go see a blues singer or a lounge act or Green Day or get into the whole swing music thing that's going on now. These are people who enjoy alternatives."
Tle Brian Setzer Orchestra began with a chance meeting, grew into an experiment and now is a phenomenon of its own. In Los Angeles in late summer 1992, a group of horn players were holding an impromptu jam at Setzer's next-door neighbor's house when one of them saw him and called out, "Hey Brian, go get your guitar and come over!" Setzer joined them with one of his classic Gretschs and a small practice amp. "They thought I wouldn't be able to keep up. They had charts from Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, some pretty hard stuff they were trying to get me with. But after awhile it was, 'Gee, this guy's alright. He can play.' Maybe the reason no one's tried this before is that you can't slide by without reading and writing music and knowing jazz chords. You have to be able to blow by those chords and play over them."
After a few more sessions, Setzer decided to work up some charts and put a Big Band together in the hopes of doing a few shows around Southern California. In December 1992, The Brian Setzer Orchestra debuted at a West Coast club. By the end of the third song the audience was on its feet. After its second Los Angeles gig, the Brian Setzer Orchestra was the hottest ticket in town. In 1994, following the release of the debut album, the Brian Setzer Orchestra embarked on a sold-out 50-show North American tour that included an extraordinary performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival the following summer.
"When we started, it was like any new band, whether there's three people or seventeen. It has to turn into a band, come into its own. This was even harder than usual because we had no reference point. If you want to do a punk band, you start with the Sex Pistols. But these were basically jazz musicians and I couldn't explain a rock gig to them. But we got on the road and by the time we hit Montreal Jazz Festival we were a band. They're doing this for the love of it, crossing the line into rock 'n' roll and diggin' it."
It may surprise some to learn that Big Bands have been a musical interest to him for a long time. Setzer was bom in Greenwich Village, New York City. Raised in Massapequa, Long Island, his first instrument, at age eight, was the euphonium, not the guitar. He played the tuba-like instrument for 10 years, and the influence of horns on his music has been strong ever since. Even when he started guitar lessons (also at age eight), his teacher was a sax player.
As a teenager, he'd cut class and take the train into the city to hang around the jazz clubs. Underage, he'd sneak into places such as the Village Vanguard and Village Gate. Once, when he saw the Mel Lewis Orchestra he remembers , "'What a great idea if you could get a guitar player to lead a Big Band." History, however, had conspired against the notion. The acoustic guitar was not traditionally a lead instrument in Big Band music and the electric guitar had only begun to make its mark in the Fifties, just as Big Bands were being overwhelmed by rock 'n' roll.
At the dawn of the Eighties, the young Stray Cats left America for London. Within months of their arrival, the trio became a full-blown sensation throughout the U.K., Europe and Japan. Still, two early albums, The Stray Cats and Gonna Ball, found their way to the U.S. only as imports. Then came the breakthrough: Built For Speed (1982) included three Top 10 hits ("Stray Cat Strut," "Rumble In Brighton" and "Rock This Town"), reached #2 on the pop album chart and was certified platinum.
But the Big Band idea still percolated in Setzer's head. On the tour bus, he'd listen to Gene Krupa and Bobby Darin, practice jazz chords, and imagine how his songs would sound arranged for a Big Band. "On the old 'Tonight Show', bands would come on but Doc Sev wouldn't be included. What a waste! I always wanted The Stray Cats on so we could play 'Rock This Town' with them."
The gold Rant N' Rave With The Stray Cats (1983) followed, as did Rock Therapy (1986), Blast Off (1989), Rock This Town: Best Of The Stray Cats (1989) and Choo Choo Hot Fish (1992). Mixed in were Setzer solo efforts Knife Feels Like Justice (1986) and Live Nude Guitars (1988). Along the way, he's been featured on albums from Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, Paul Rodgers, and Rickie Lee Jones. In 1996, Setzer will headline a VH-1 "Duets" show with Bryan Adams and will be heard on the soundtracks to Striptease and the re-released Aristocats (he earlier contributed to The Songs Of West Side Story). "I feel pretty lucky. I survived the Eighties with respect as a guitar player. When people hear Clapton, they know it's him. All I ever wanted was for people to hear me and go, 'That's Brian."'
When his Big Band labor of love finally happened, it caught him unawares. "How far could I push the electric guitar? This was not just rock with horns. That'd been done. This was the full orchestra. Would it work at all? I started the band for fun and now we're doing our second album!" As a result, albwn one was largely covers. "The record deal came so quickly, I didn't have the time to write an album's worth of original songs and I was still putting the musical pieces of the puzzle together. For Guitar Slinger, I wrote the songs first and then wrote the parts. So the songs stand up by themselves."
Joe Strummer's involvement was a happy coincidence. Setzer and the former leader of The Clash had been only acquaintances in London. "But we both have old Cadillacs, he has a '55 and I have a '60," Setzer says. "One day he called because he wanted to know where to get his fixed." Strummer ended up spending a couple months with Setzer, the pair often driving around the desert together and, of course, writing songs.
Setzer had produced the first album but another coincidence resulted in a new producer for Guitar Slinger. Phil Ramone saw the band perform and afterwards told him, "I want to produce this." An elated Setzer asked, "Really?" Ramone answered, "But you need to record like you play live. If your guitar isn't blasting with you singing the way you sing, the band plays differently." For the recording, Ramone banned headphones and set up a P.A. for playback, blasting it at the horn section. Though it's not a live album, the musicians played on Guitar Slinger as if it were.
That live vibe will be heard again this summer as The Brian Setzer Orchestra embarks on another national tour. "This is good American music - Americans invented it, and," Setzer says of its future, "I can't see it going away." The tour itinerary includes a stop at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. Setzer laughs, "Pretty good for a skinny guy with tattoos."