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
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
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
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
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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