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Interview and photos by Kastle

Pulling up in a gorgeous golden-colored '57 Dodge, Brian Setzer manages to turn heads everywhere he goes. Dressed in a leopard print shirt and black suit, the canary-coifed, former lead singer of the 80's band The Stray Cats, walks with a commanding presence but is absolutely one the nicest and most cordial guys you'll ever meet. And he's happy, not only is life treating him well but his latest project, The Brain Setzer Orchestra, just released their second album, "Guitar Slinger," and have finally evolved to truly stand up to the pet name he's given it as a "rockin' big band."

Meeting at a small Santa Monica bar, we decide the locale is too noisy and move down the road to a cozy steak house. Setzer points out how they grill the steaks just right there and he how he himself can cook up a mean slab of meat. After a toast of cocktails, we proceed to talk about life since the Stray Cats, fronting of his own orchestra and other hobbies and vices.

Q: So you have a full orchestra backing you up, who are those guys?

A: The musicians are local, jazz, session players, like when you hear the Lion King, that's half my band. When you see a Sinatra special, that's part of my band. Most of the guys prefer to stay around rather then go out on tour, because they make pretty good money around town. When you hear a little jazz combo on some toothpaste commercial that's probably some of the guys in the orchestra!

Q: Is the big band something you always wanted to do?

A: I grew up in New York and I remember distinctly growing up and being blown away with that sound and loving it. I learned how to play guitar from an old Italian guitar player who taught me how to read and write music and all the jazz chords so I had that be my background. A big point in time when I started thinking about it again was when the Stray Cats had a hit with "Rock This Town" and they wanted us to be on the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was dying to use the Tonight Show Orchestra playing behind us. Because bands would come on and they would ditch the Doc Severinson band and was I like 'No, let them play!' I thought they could pick up their instruments and play behind us, I didn't know they needed to have music written out. The idea I just thought was great.

Q: Are the members of your orchestra into rock n roll - do you influence each other?

A: Some of the guys were. Some of them played on a session with Neil Young and different rock n' roll artists give them a call when they need a horn. They like the idea but I think in the beginning there was a bit of trepidation on all of us. I had a thing where I didn't want them to think I was just this loud rock guitar player out to blow them away. I wanted them to know I respected them. So it took awhile for the band to become what it was. Just like any band - you have to become a band, and that was part of it. So when we went around for the first time in 1994 and we had a few gigs under our belt, it really jelled. I think they saw what a rock n' roll audience was and the kind of audience I was capable of drawing - crazy rock n' rollers, rockabillies. They didn't know what that was and when they saw it, they got it. No amount of explaining would help until they actually saw it.

Breaking the band in at local clubs in the Los Angeles area, it was easy to see the orchestra progress from it's awkward, humble first shows to a full, rich confident band. Barely together a year, they released their first record on Hollywood, a collection mainly of old swing and jump blues covers with a bit of Setzer's trademark flavor thrown in. Now two years later, after a label switch to Interscope, they present "Guitar Slinger," demonstrating what the band was truly meant to be, a powerful, blooze rockin', horn blowin' good time to be had by all. It's what Setzer always wanted and now finally has whether anybody else it doin' it or not...

Q: I saw your first few shows in L.A. and you could really see the progression as the band came into its does this second record differ from the first?

A: It wasn't difficult. I wasn't thinking about it like 'I don't like this, I have to make it something else.' I kind of knew where I wanted it to go. But with that first record, we got signed so quick, I didn't have the songs, the charts or anything, It was kind of a swing band and the guitar wasn't really part of the band. With this album, it was like now I know the idea works, I know I can front a big band with an electric guitar, so now just let me write songs. I don't have to think about writing swing songs or is this going to work or not, that point was proven. So I just sat down and started writing songs. It took a little turn.

Q: What happened with the record label switch, you started on Hollywood, now you're on Interscope?

A: We started off on Hollywood, they were a good label but unfortunately when I signed with them, everybody got fired. It was like, wow, I'm on a label where I don't know anybody. They were still pretty good in a lot of ways, they footed a big bill to get the band on the road and they got an album out for me, So they were good in that way. Then what happened was Interscope came along and saw the big band at the House of Blues and said we want this band, we understand what you're doing and if there's anyway you can get off your label, we're in. So miracle of miracles, Hollywood let us off and we signed with Interscope right away. I think they're doing a great job, I love everybody over there. They're just fantastic and I can see it in just the way the band it taking off, they're doing a great job!

Q: There are no other bands that are doing what you do, do you worry that your uniqueness may be an obstacle?

A: I like it because it's not a swing band, I'm not in the same category as the modern swing band even though I like those bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Royal Crown Revue. I think they're great bands. But when it comes down to it, they've got two or three horns, I've got five saxophones! Then the rockabilly bands, well I'm a rockabilly guitar player, but I've got a big band. And even the big bands, as few of them as they are, they're just old guys going over the old Glenn Miller charts. So it's a unique thing but I think that's what makes it good. It stands apart from all that stuff in doing something unique by blending all those different influences. I think that's what's making it stand out.

Q: Do rock or big band purists ever balk at you for mixing it all up?

A: No I haven't gotten that. As a matter of fact, the biggest blessing I got was from Henry Mancini before he died, he came up and he shook me going, "Yes! This is great, you're doing something new with and old genre that died fifty years ago! It's brand new, man, keep doing it!" So I've gotten a pretty good response from people. The rockabillies yell out Stray Cats songs and I do a couple. I think if I had the Stray Cats, they'd yell out songs we wouldn't want to do anyway! People like to yell out certain things but not too much anymore. With the new record out they're starting to yell out the new songs.

Q: Tell me about the songwriting process is it difficult writing for a 17 piece orchestra compared to the 3 piece Stray Cats?

A: The songwriting is the same. I think the Stray Cats could have done "Johnny Kool." Chart writing takes a long time. If we really rush it, we can get it done in about a week but that's really pushing it because you have to think about all those parts then you have to write it down on the orchestration paper. For 17 people, it's like writing a book! Then that has to be transcribed onto the sheet music. You can do it on a computer but the boys don't like that, they like to see handwritten notes because they say it's friendlier to your eye. When I started doing it I realized it was. I don't like reading that computer stuff, it's really a drag! When you hand write music, it's much easier to read. All that takes awhile but in the end you got this great thing!

Q: There's a couple of songs written by Joe Strummer from The Clash on this record, how was did that come about?

A: I dug up Joe in the back of a Cadillac graveyard! I have all these cars and he called me up lookin' to get his '55 fixed. We got it running, he was grateful and he gave me some lyrics. I thought, 'Wow, these are good!' And I wrote "Guitar Slinger" to 'em. I thought I need some more. So he came out to my house in the desert, we started riding the Cadillacs in the desert. One night we were having a party and he was writing lyrics by candlelight. I said, 'What are you Abe Lincoln!' He didn't get it but he handed me these lyrics and it was "Ghost Radio." I sat down and started writing the song. That's when I knew we had something. There was a spark, it doesn't happen with everyone but I felt it with Joe. We ended up writing about 6 songs together.

Q: How is it touring with the big band?

A: We did one tour of the US, about 2 weeks and we lost so much money! I had so many people telling me, "This ain't gonna work." I've heard that before with the Stray Cats! I said no, this will work because people want to see it. Then all of a sudden the offers started coming in. They would ask what it would take to get the big band and we would tell them how much. They'd say "That's ridiculous!" Then 10 minutes later they'd say OK. So it's been like that, against all odds. It manages to kind of work itself out, I don't know how. It's a real expensive thing but it's managing to balance itself out at the moment. I get a great sense of satisfaction knowing that I can do it against what everybody says.

For Setzer's former band the Stray Cats, success came in the peak of music's flamboyant 80's period. They flaunted the look and sound of 1950's original cool and prompted a rockabilly revival from Britain to the States. The Cats' impact still lingers to this day. During our interview, a yuppie-ish, 30-something gentleman approaches Setzer, "Loved that song Fishnet Stockings!" Setzer is somewhat startled at his somewhat conservative, if not loyal fan. But has no problems talking about the days when the Stray Cats ruled the schools as a hit making machine all the way to their not-so-hot years...

Q: The 80's were an amazing time for you and the Stray Cats, how do you look back on those days?

A: It was a pretty hairy time, a lot of it was too much, a lot of it I didn't enjoy. To be 21 and have all that happen. I took a lot of it too seriously. Like if you get a rave review but they say one point of criticism, that's what I would remember. It's just such a rollercoaster, you just have to not take it seriously and in those days I did. I'd get very upset about things if they didn't go my way. I wanted it all to go right. But the really good points were really high and they were great. When I heard Runaway Boys on the radio in England, that's an unbelievable thing. Some of the great shows we did made me feel like we were really making something and were a great band. Nobody can take that away from us.[We thought to ourselves] 'We made what we wanted, we didn't compromise it and everybody likes it. We're not just playing to 100 people in a club, EVERYBODY likes it!' We managed to make it so that it was acceptable and it was still cool. It's cool playing to 30 or 40 people in a club but it's much cooler playing to 30 or 40 thousand and selling millions of records. Nobody will deny that.

Q: The Stray Cats were popular 'til the end - what happened that broke the band up?

A: That's not necessarily true. Rockabilly was a bad word for awhile, there were a lot of low spots. I think what happened with us is that we just kinda ran our course. We got a little bored. Going on the road became a real drag. We didn't have a record out, we didn't have a record deal. We were signed to a little, minor, crummy label and we were spoiled. We were used to having a major record deal and selling records and having people at least hear us. The last record deal we got was with Pyramid records in Chattanooga, Tennessee and it was terrible. We made a great record, "Choo Choo Hot Fish," with Dave Edmunds and it never got heard. We said this sucks, we're better than this. We thought if we want to just do this, it's fine but we don't wanna. We wanted to compete like a real band. And we were really disheartened by that. We had been on the road for 4 years and we were burnt and pissed. In the meantime, I had this thing under my skin to do a big band. Jim [Phantom] and Lee [Rocker] knew it and they were getting sick of hearing about it. I said, 'look guys I gotta go do this.' I started writing the charts and then the big band started to play really on a whim. It just started to happen and kept going. Then the thought of doing the Stray Cats again became more distant. [I thought] 'What am I gonna do, go out and try to hunt down a record deal for the Stray Cats? I've got a major record deal! I got a great record and I got [the big band] selling out shows.' I realized I couldn't do both.

Q: You're known for really being into those neglected sounds of the past, what are you into now?

A: Right now the music that's really affecting me from the past is when I hear that soundtrack music from the late 50's, the soundtrack from "Anatomy of A Murder", or "The Man With The Golden Arm," or "The Untouchables," I'm really entranced by that stuff. I love the tension and the drama it builds up, it really has captured my imagination. I love it because it doesn't follow a formula, they're writing it with the scene unfolding and it has no chorus, no bridge, no nothing, it's just this stuff going on. I'm just really fascinated with it, I'd like to do one.

But Brian Setzer is not just about music...during our chat he shows off one of his pleasurable vices, a fresh tattoo on his calf of a Hawaiian hula girl by local tattooist, Eric Maaske. He also puffs away on another vice, cigars, and talks about his family, his new love for cars and something he refers to as leading a "Kustom Lifestyle"

Q: When did you start smoking cigars? What do you like about them?

A: I guess I've been smoking five or six years now. My great grandfather used to smoke cigars. We'd go there and I use to sit and love that smell. I started smoking during poker games, then more and more I started smoking cigars. Now I've smoked daily for the past 3 or 4 years. I never smoked cigarettes. My dad did one of those things where I was a wise guy and my dad gave me a pack of cigarettes to smoke and I turned green! Nowadays, they'd call that child abuse! But I never started smoking cigarettes after that. Cigars are a lot different culturally, physically, it's very relaxing. You don't inhale them, every once in awhile you get a puff down there, but it's the lesser of two evils.

Q: Are you part of this big, trendy cigar craze?

A: I don't like that Cigar Aficionado, that's just a snotty, crummy thing! That's not what it's about! I like an expensive cigar, I like a Cuban. I was smoking White Owls at my mom's wedding! I just like a good smoke. During the day, I don't want a strong cigar, it could be just anything, as long as I'm smoking something. I like that hand-rolled stuff at the local tobacco shop, they're pretty quality and reasonably priced. I kind of change my tastes. I like a good Monte Cristo at night, when you want to blow 15 bucks. I like a good Dunhill or hand-rolled cigar.

Q: You're a dad too, how is fatherhood?

A: I am a father-hood! Being a dad is great. I have a nine year old son, Cody, he's a little surfer dude. He's got blond hair with a little wave in the front. He's gotta get the hair right in the morning, combs it, puts grease in there! Hair's gotta be right, clothes gotta be right! He's a good boy. He's into go-carts and surfing, outdoors stuff. I'm lucky, he's a friend. We hang out and do silly stuff, model airplanes. I love that - I love to build model airplanes, rockets, cars!

Q: Has that changed your perspective on life?

A: You gotta be more responsible. I'm good with a little boy because I like all that stuff. But yeah, getting up and going to school, you gotta be there! So that's changed, I still go out but you gotta remember you got a little guy around. So that's the only way it's really changed. It's fun.

Q: You pulled up in a beautiful classic car, is that your latest passion?

A: I'm really super into cars. I don't even care as much about guitars now, I just want cars! I built a '58 Chevy by myself, my son painted the wheels, I scraped all the asbestos off the headliner, all the 50's crap, my wife put the carpet in. Now we gotta fill up the holes and paint it, put flames on it. I just build them as much as I can by myself now. I can't rebuild an engine and drop it but I can do the cosmetics. I have 3 old cars, I have the '57 Dodge, '58 Chevy we built and '60 convertible Cadillac. Those are my daily cars. I gotta get one of those 4 wheel things I guess, I'm really holding out. I think I can do it all in the Caddy!

Q: Do you go to a lot of car shows now?

A: I went to the open roadster show, that was a little disappointing - how much money you got to build a car - that's not what it's about. It's about building a cool hot rod! There's a couple of cool hot rod clubs down in Orange County, I like hanging out with those guys. I brought Strummer down and he was in heaven. They didn't really know who he was. We were playing some songs and someone yelled out "London Calling" and he played it! His wife even said, "He's never played that for me!" It was nice feeling, it was like "our people," it was great!

Q: You've talked about living a "Kustom Lifestyle," what is that?

A: The Kustom Lifestyle is not about one kind of music, it's not about just rockabilly or psychobilly. It's just about the kind of people who like to kind of go against the grain. It's definitely about old cars, but it's about fixing them up in your own style, making them custom or hot-rodding them. It's also about style in the way you dress whether it be rockabilly style or swing style. It's about thought going into your daily life. Like I would never go out in a pair of sneakers and jeans with my hair not combed - it's never been done! It's about care and thought that goes into your daily regime. There's a lot of people who do that, in their look and in your daily life and the way you live.

Q: If you wrote the Book Of Cool, what would you have in it?

A: A lot of people on the scene help each other, they just do stuff for free, like if your car needs something. There's a real sense of community and the first time around it wasn't like that, people were cutting each other, saying your band sucks, a lot of bad stuff. This time around, people are really helping each other, that's cool. I think it's cool when I see my son combing his hair in the morning, he's got a style going already and it's important to him. That's cool stuff. Having cool cars and cool clothes, that's what it's about but it's also about your actions and how you take care of people. Like I got a friend, if I asked him for 500 bucks at 4 in the morning, he would be there, no questions asked. It's friendship and that's cool. It sounds kind of syrupy but it's not, that's what being cool is about.

Copyright 1996, Lazar Productions.

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