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Brian Setzer

By Neil Gladstone - 12/26/96


Brian Setzer gained international acclaim in the early '80s leading the rockabilly trio, Stray Cats. In the latter half of the decade, he only achieved limited commercial and critical success with his solo albums. The Brian Setzer Orchestra first began in the late summer of 1992 when a group of horn players holding an impromptu jam session at a next-door neighbor's house invited him join in. After a few more jams, the 38-year-old guitarist decided to get a 17-piece big band together and mix classic swing with rock 'n' roll. The 1994 album, Guitar Slinger (Interscope), has struggled with radio airplay and sales, but the Orchestra almost always plays to a sell-out crowd when it's on the road. Setzer, who grew up in Long Island, still has a bit of that accent in his phone voice, but it's mixed with the laid-back tone of his adopted home, Los Angeles.

Stray Cats fans can look forward to a new compilation due out in early January, Runaway Boys: A Retrospective '81 -'92 (EMI). Those who are already preparing for next year's Christmas can find several Setzer Orchestra versions of classic Christmas carols on the Jingle All the Way soundtrack (TVT).

Did nouveau swing acts like the Royal Crown Revue spark your interest in getting a big band together?

I knew of the Royal Crown Revue, but my interest in the big band thing goes back to when the Stray Cats [were being considered for] the old Johnny Carson show. They asked us if we wanted to use Doc Severenson's band to back us up. At the time, they were just starting to have rock acts on the show and we didn't get the gig. But I remember that turning on a lightbulb in my head --"Wow a big band behind 'Rock This Town.' Why not, it's just swing music? It would work."

Do you think you'll do things differently on the next Brian Setzer Orchestra album?

With the songs I'm writing now, I'm moving away from the "Man with the Magic Touch" classic big band stuff. I'm writing more rockers with a little bit more of that crime drama element.

I'd like to have Dave Edmunds sitting in the producer's chair again.

Had you co-written songs with Joe Strummer before this album?

Well, it was actually our common interest in classic cars that brought us together. He came into town and called me up saying, "I need to get my brakes fixed on that old Caddy I've got. Do you know anyone?" I sent my guy Joe Canto, the patron saint of General Motors, to fix the brakes. As an appreciation he handed me some lyrics. I thought: "Jeez, these are fantastic." We started hanging out in the desert and writing songs. Mostly he was doing the lyrics and me the music.

Would you like to see the Clash get back together?

Joe will kill me for saying this, but I would. I don't think they toured enough. I think they've got a lot more to say. With the Stray Cats getting back together it wouldn't be the same thing, it would be for fun. I think the Clash had so many records out and they didn't play that much. But I don't think Joe is considering it at the moment.

In the "Hot Licks" instructional guitar video you did a few years ago, you mix jazz and rockabilly styles. When did you start getting into jazz?

I grew up learning jazz from my guitar teachers in New York. I always mixed jazz chords and scales into my rockabilly playing. I thought that's what always made my style unique. People really love that tape. Maybe part of the charm of it was that I had the hangover from hell when I did it and hadn't gone to bed the night before.

If you could be anyone in the Rat Pack, who would you be?

Dino. He was the smoothest. Sammy was smooth too, but I don't think Dino had a mean bone in his body. He wasn't sarcastic or anything, he just went with the flow.

How would you compare Atlantic City to Vegas?

Vegas is a little classier, to be honest. It has more of a dress up vibe. I like when you go down to a casino and people look sharp -- maybe I'm overly influenced by old James Bond movies. Atlantic City is more of a shorts and T-shirt vibe. I like to go to a casino dressed up. I think it would help Atlantic City if it had a bit of a dress code.

What's your favorite gambling game?

Craps. I came away with 1,300 bucks the last time I played in Vegas.

I heard you had a guitar stolen recently.

Yeah, they stole my Stray Cat Gretsch, the one I used with the Stray Cats, and this other one called a Gretsch Sparkle Jet. Someone that works in the cargo company we use swiped the guitars. It was an inside job. The thieves were in disguises and it was pretty well thought out. They stole a bunch of bands' stuff including the Counting Crows. They haven't found any of the stuff yet.

The Stray Cat guitar is the worst thing I could have lost. It bummed me out and then I got pissed off. I've only got one vintage guitar left. I have a new one as a backup, but it's not quite the same as a vintage model.

Any chance that you'll get back together with the Stray Cats again?

Yeah, sure. I don't see why not. I wouldn't want to deal with it as a "reunion." But if I feel like I want to play with the boys, I'll do it. It has to be something kind of fun. I wouldn't want to do some club tour just to make a couple of bucks.

I just spoke to [Slim] Jim [Phantom] the other night. We don't hang out much these days, but I still talk to them rather often.

Are there any musicians you'd like to meet that you haven't?

I'd like to meet Paul McCartney and shake his hand as a bass player, not as a Beatle. I think he's one of the best bass players there has ever been.

Would you like to become the Guy Lombardo of your generation?

No, I'm happy being the Eddie Cochran of my generation. I still take major influence from him. But the big band sound on New Year's Eve is hard to beat -- it's the kind of music you want to hear.

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