Brian Setzer Interview

You'll remember him as the singer/guitarist for the Stray Cats — the group that brought you "Rock This Town."

Well, Brian Setzer is back with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. That's right, a 17 piece orchestra. It's the Big Band Sound, or as Brian refers to it, it's his "Rockin' Big Band."

Brian's latest, release can be found on the Hollywood Records label.

Harry Connick, Jr., move over! Brian Setzer's back in town — with the Big Beat!!

Q. Brian, you're taking this 17 piece band with you on a tour of Japan?
A. Yeah. I'm taking 'em. (Laughs.)

Q. Isn't that expensive to do?
A. You know, when I first put the band together, I didn't even plan on taking it on the road. I thought it would be pretty much next to impossible, or at least do what guys like Sinatra do, and that is they hire musicians in every town they go. But, I don't know, I guess demand has been so strong that we've managed to make it work in Japan. When we come back, we start the tour in the States, with the same Big Band. We're taking two Silver Eagle buses and going. So, I think if people want it enough, you can do it.

Q. Probably one of the reasons, why Big Bands sort of died out, is the cost of touring.
A. Oh, absolutely. I think that's partially it. I definitely do. It's just a big, expensive thing — but, it's some sound.

Q. Aren't you a little young to be so taken with the Big Band Sound?
A. Geez, I don't know. It's just great music. I never understood that kind of thinking. I just think if something is good... young classical musicians are impressed with Bach. (Laughs.) I never really thought of time periods having anything to do with it, at least in my life. Just good stuff always seemed to work for me.

Q. Even when you were in The Stray Cats, I thought you were a little too young to have been impressed with Rockabilly.
A. That was something different, you know, because that was a whole look, and a whole lifestyle as well, that impressed me. So, I was definitely enamored of that whole period. I love 50's cars. I love the music. I love the clothes. I just thought it was the greatest time in American history. This is a little different. It's strictly a musical thing that we've brought back, changed, and written new charts for, and things like that.

Q. Before you put this orchestra together, what were you doing? How did you make a living?
A. Well, I was on the road with The Stray Cats for years. Once we re-formed in '88, we were on the road constantly. We were pretty much a touring band. We toured pretty much steady through '92. We were everywhere — Japan, Europe, Australia, the States, for about 4 years.

Q. It says in your bio that you and neighbor Michael Acosta worked on charts together. You must be one of the few rock musicians that can do something like that.
A. I can't brag and say that I sat down and wrote charts like Henry Mancini or Nelson Riddle. (Laughs). It’s something I had a lot of help with. I just basically put my two cents in on the writing. I co-wrote about half the record. Mike Acosta and Mark Jones are the arrangers and orchestrators.

Q. As a musician, did you feel that you had taken rock ‘n’ roll, or rockabilly about as far as you could go with it?
A. Well, no, it wasn’t a matter of going as far as you can with anything. I did an interview yesterday, and this guy said I mentioned this Big Band thing to him ten years ago. But, I mean, the past 3 or 4 years it was really becoming just a great idea. I just kept thinking about it, and thinking about it. Finally, I made it a reality and it hit so hard, so quick that I was swept up with it. We’d only done 3 or 4 gigs, and we had the record companies coming around.

Q. Which is pretty unusual isn't it?
A. Yeah. It really is. So, I thought what I should do is bridge rockabilly into this sort of thing, and not to abandon it. I thought it deserved a place, with this orchestra, with this sound.

Q. When you were growing up, did jazz musicians make a bigger impression on you than say pop or rock musicians?
A. That's a very good question, because I heard guys on; the radio, but far away, you know. Guys like George Harrison. But, he was in England with The Beatles, on a record. The guys I had teach me, were jazz guitar players, from New York. They were right there. So, that's a very good point. I never really thought of that.

Q. I’ve read that you used to hang out at jazz clubs.
A. Yeah. We'd cut classes and stuff. We'd wind up quite by accident in jazz clubs because we didn't know what one place was from the next. We'd look in the paper and wind up at CBGB's one night, and the next night we'd be in the Village Vanguard, checking out different types of music, and just kind of experimenting.

Q. You had a group called the Bloodless Pharoahs. What was that all about?
A. Oh, you want to dig up that can of worms? (Laughs.) The Bloodless Pharoahs were probably my first group, my first real group that got me into playing club scenes, into the actual New York club scene. We were an a la new wave group. It included my brother on the drums and two other members. We sounded a bit like the early Roxy music. I didn't sing in that group. I played guitar. I was finding that when I was closing with a rockabilly song, it was bringing the house down. That's what led me to the early Stray Cats. At the time we were called Palm Cats, Bob Cats. We just changed our name all the time.

Q. How difficult would it be for you or any musician to write a song, or play an instrument in such a way, that people would think it's totally unique? Could it be done?
A. When I first started to play guitar, my whole goal was to get my own sound, and the reason was, when I turned on the radio, I always knew when it was Eric Clapton, or I always knew when it was Dickey Betts. I thought that was really important. Part of the way I went about that was to choose that Gretsch guitar that I use, because I didn't know anyone who had one or played one. I actually started out on a little Rickenbacker. I thought that it was real important that at least, if someone ever heard me on the radio, they would know it was me. So, I never understood why everybody ran out and got the Les Paul and the Marshall set-up that kind of sounded like everybody else. I thought it was more important to get your own sound going, than trying to get the tone that everybody else has.

Q. The Big Band sound is not new. It's been done before. But, to kids today, it's new.
A. All that is true, but if you've ever heard a 1930's real Big Band, it wouldn't sound anything like this. And the reason is, this has a rock foundation. It's a whole different sort of thing. But, it does have the Big Band configuration, which is 17 pieces. That's a standard set-up. I didn't make that up. A Big Band consists of five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, bass, piano, drums, and guitar.

Q. When Jimi Hendrix went looking for fame and fortune, he found he had to travel to England initially to get it. The Stray Cats also left the States for England. Whose idea was that?
A. (Laughs.) I think that was a collective idea from all of us. I just remember reading an English newspaper, that was probably in a little magazine stand with a picture of some guy who had like a pompadour, an earring, a tattoo. At the time, it was pre-punk. It was so out of the ordinary. Nowadays, everybody's got that. It was such an incredible thing to see that we just said, ‘wow’, and the word rockabilly was mentioned, and Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran, stuff we had discovered on our own, that these guys were talking about!! We just were wowed by it. No one where we came from had ever heard the word rockabilly. It wasn't in anyone's vocabulary. So, it just became a thing in the back of our minds, we should go to England, because we weren’t getting anywhere on the East Coast. Then one day we finally met an English Teddy boy sort of character, you know the English equivalent to the American greaser, from the 50’s. He just said, “Brian , if I ever took you guys to England, you would be stars. They would love you there, ‘cause you’re authentic. You’re Americans”. And-----he was right. (Laughs). It really happened.

Q. How did you pull up stakes and make what was to be a big move? Did you have a lot of money?
A. First of all, we were 18, 19, 20 years old. We didn’t care. We sold everything we had. Everything. We had a crummy little P.A. — we sold that. I sold guitars. Jim and Lee sold their stuff. We really pitched in enough to buy plane tickets. We had an English guy who turned into our manager, whose parents let us stay at their house, way out in the suburbs of London. We basically just bummed around. We certainly didn't have any money.

Q. How about equipment?
A. We went through English customs with a Gretsch guitar, a stand-up bass, a drum, and a cymbal. (Laughs.) And we almost didn't get through. They knew we were trying to find work. But the women there, I'll never forget it, kind of had a little soft spot for us. The manager we had was English and he told her we were gonna stay at his parents' house, and she kind of snuck us through.

Q. You were lucky!
A. Yeah, I know. Luck has a lot to do with everything in the music business, believe me. (Laughs.)

Q. How much time went by, between the time you arrived in England, and opening for the Rolling Stones?
A. It was less than a year. We didn't have an American record out yet. They (The Stones) came to see us in a club, in London.

Q. Who came to see you?
A. I think they all came.

Q. Was it a big deal for you to open up for The Stones?
A. Well, I gotta tell you, unlike most Americans my age growing up at the time. I don't think I could've sang up one Rolling Stones song. Jim and Lee were totally enamored and blown away by it. I think I knew 'Honky Tonk Women,' which I thought was their best song. But, I was a Rockabilly fan. I didn't care about the Rolling Stones to be honest with you. I was really blown away when I met Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. So, that was the big deal for me. I was very flattered (with The Stones gigs) and though it was great, but I don't think I knew more than three Rolling Stones songs.

Q. Maybe that worked to your advantage.
A. I wasn't star struck by them, and I think they probably read that. It probably was a refreshing change for them. (Laughs.)

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