By Troy M. Meier
With his overwrought pompadour rocking and his signature Gretsch hollow-body guitar twanging away, Brian Setzer arrived on the U.S. pop music scene with a vengeance in the early 1980s. Up to that point, American audiences were OK with reruns of Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days—all benign depictions of a clichéd 1950s heartland America. But when Setzer and his band began getting primetime MTV rotation, an illusion was shattered and a trio of tattooed rockers—who made The Fonz look like a momma’s boy—was introduced into the homes of millions of U.S. teens in the form of the Stray Cats.
In 1980 the Cats strutted their way from their native Long Island, New York, where they received only ho-hum attention, over to England, where Setzer and the boys created a flurry of excitement among an already-thriving Teddy-boy and punk rock scene. Welsh hit-producer Dave Edmunds took them under his wing, and within months they were rubbing elbows with stars and climbing the record charts. The clincher was an opening spot on a Rolling Stones U.S. tour.
Soon, the Stray Cats became a household word in music circles, and Brian Setzer was enthralling the guitar world with scorching new takes on riffs he seemingly pulled out of the graveyard. He became admired and respected as a real technical dynamo.
In the middle 1990s the Brian Setzer Orchestra tapped into a fledgling revival of the swing genre that shot him on yet another meteoric rise—this time with the approval of the mainstream music industry—culminating in a success story resulting in multiple Grammy Awards and other industry accolades for his CD Dirty Boogie. Since then he’s continued to tour and pump out critically acclaimed CDs with his seventeen-piece rocking band. He records for motion picture soundtracks and has become a holiday favorite, with his Christmas CDs—threatening to replace Harry Connick Jr. as the torchbearer for that revered honor.
But through the years, Brian Setzer has been known to show a softer, more contemplative, spiritual component to his art as well. We wanted to find out where the raucous meets the redeemed.
Troy M. Meier: You’ve tackled at least two genres—rockabilly and swing—once thought to be dead-ends musically, and you seem to have reinvented both of them. What does that say about you as a musician?
Brian Setzer: That I like to recycle? [Laughs] It’s funny because I know people say that about me. The rockabilly thing…paralleled punk to me, and it shook up that whole kind of established, performed music at the time. So I was almost maybe a little over-qualified for it since I did read and write music. In the original days, I think those rockabilly guys came out of the hills and plugged in and played.
I understand the rockabilly thing, but how’d that translate into a full-blown orchestra?
That sound, watching the old Johnny Carson Tonight Show, always intrigued me. I thought, “Imagine if I could play my song, ‘Rock This Town’ with a big band behind it.” So I had thought of that a long time ago and eventually had the nerve to try it. It’s been fourteen years now. So that’s kind of how all that started. Also, I liked the themes. I kind of like jumpin’ around.
Who is your biggest influence?
The one who had the whole package, the guy had the whole thing was Eddie Cochran. I didn’t know how well he played guitar, I didn’t know about his songs, but I remember seeing that record cover. He had that hair slicked back, and I said, “I want to look like that guy.” That guy looks so cool. For some reason, I related to that, and not to the kind of hippy styles that were popular. I mean, that’s what it was in the late 60s and early 70s. You know, everybody had long hair and earth shoes, and I was going to school with slicked back hair and motorcycle boots. I was just instantly attracted to that look.
Did you get hassled in high school when your taste in musical style started to change and go against the grain?
Not so much in high school, but after high school, yeah. There were people calling me names out of their car because I had a funny hair cut. I still get that when I go home. I turn around and think, “Wait a minute. I’m forty-eight years old. I have a grown son. You can’t call me that!”
Was that part of the impetus in the early days to go to Great Britain? Or was that purely musical?
The real impetus for me to go was the picture on the cover of the NME [British magazine New Music Express]. We used to buy it at the local record store, and there was a picture of a guy on the front with a coif, a pompadour, and an earring. Do you know what it was like to have an earring in 1979? Guys didn’t wear them or have tattoos. We saw a picture of this guy and said, “Someone like us exists somewhere else, and it’s in England. That’s where we have to go.” So that was really the motive for going.
Well, that’s cool. That’s a good test.
Musically, it seems like a whole heck of a lot to tackle. What was your motivation to do a whole CD of classical compositions?
I basically got pestered into it. Well, here’s what happened. I sat down and started playing The Blue Danube. I said, “Well, that’s kind of neat.” So I went to downtown Minneapolis where I recorded my three guitars, and I played it back for my wife, and she said, “It’s really cool. You have to play this for Dave, your manager.” So I played it. That was the first mistake. He said, “Oh, you gotta write the chart. You gotta sit down and write, finish the song.” So I thought to myself, I’ve got to just pull the parts of The Blue Danube that I like. So I sat down with my guy, Mark Jones, and we wrote a chart, and that sort of got the ball rolling. I thought, “Wait a minute, this is pretty darn cool. I gotta do another one,” and that’s where Frank Comstock came in. That’s where the ball started rolling.
Who is Frank Comstock?
I don’t know what to say about Frank Comstock. I mean, he’s eighty-four years old, and when he goes, you will not hear that kind of chart writing anymore. I mean, he’s like the last guy. He writes those old school incredible big band charts that nobody can really write. I can’t come close to it. So I approached him. He wrote the “Nutcracker Suite” for Les Brown in 1957 that we covered [on one of our Christmas CDs]. I said to my manager, I can’t write twelve charts. It will take me a year. It’s just too much work. I said, Can you contact Frank Comstock and see if, A, he’s still alive, and, B, if he even knows who I am or if he’d be interested? So fast forward a bit and I get the guy on the phone and he says, “Oh, I haven’t written one of these things in years.” The Adam-12 theme was the last thing he wrote.
He wrote the theme to the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon also. He said, “I haven’t written anything in forty years. I don’t know if I can do it.” I said, “Well, here’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. If you want to have a little fun, pull it apart.” So he calls me back in about three days and says, “It’s done. I’m going to send you the score.” So then I scored another one, and Frank said, “Give me another song.” I said, “Well, let me see…How about Mozart?” Four or five days was all it took. In a couple of weeks another one comes. I said, now we’ve got to call a rehearsal and see if this is any good because I don’t want to keep writing if this isn’t going to work. But when I heard Frank’s charts back, I said, “Oh my God!” I think it’s fantastic, I don’t know what people are going to think, to be honest with you, but then I let the horse out of the barn, and he was asking me to give him another one. Then he had ideas of songs he wanted to write. So by the time we finished, he had written six or seven, and I had written six or seven.
That’s got to be a career highlight for you as a musician.
I gotta tell you, planning these charts was probably the most complex thing I’ve ever done. I mean, it really swings. It’s amazing because everybody knows these songs. They’re hits already. If I could make these things new, and make them swing and put a little of my Gretsch in there, it’s gonna be fun.
Do you think it is important that this music get rediscovered in some sort of way?
It is. I like to say that I do things strictly for fun and because it bends my ear musically, but this is pretty cool. If your thirteen-year-old daughter starts singing “Hall of the Mountain King,” and they will discover that this song is two hundred years old, and that this is good music, that’s pretty important isn’t it?
There are some in the roots music scene who didn’t like what you did with the music—that you strayed too far afield. Any reaction to that?
I’ve learned a lot of people don’t want you to do that. A lot of people want you to stay in that little box, especially in these circles. In these rockabilly circles, you get these people—I guess you’d call them purists. You’ve gotta use 12 gauge strings through a crummy old guitar and cuff those jeans one-and-three-quarter inches. There’s a lot of people who don’t want you to take those chances. I’ve discovered that. That’s never been me since the beginning. I’ve always just taken the rockabilly thing and used it as a springboard and have just jumped in different directions with it. I think that the rockabilly scene is really stale. That’s gone nowhere, you know, that’s just stayed in its little area because people don’t want it to be…they don’t want it to expand. They don’t want to make something new out of it. They put it in a little glass case. You’ve got to break the glass case, take it out, and have fun with it.
You’ve earned a reputation as a musical and cultural maverick of sorts. When you write, record, and release a beautiful song like “St. Jude,” this seems to fly in the face a little bit of your reputation. Can you elaborate on your patron saint?
Well, thanks. This is kind of my private belief. I can tell you St. Jude, I’ve leaned on him a lot, and he’s helped me out a lot, and I believe in him, and I wrote a song, kind of after 9/11 for St. Jude to help us, and I dedicated the song. It’s a plea, and it’s also a dedication. As a matter of fact, I have a little pin of him in my wallet.
In the song, you say, “It’s something that’s scorned from the left / And abused by the right / It’s something so misunderstood / And ignored in daily life / If you proclaim the mystery of faith / You’ll be absolved from daily strife / Through Him, in Him, and within Him / Springs our eternal life.”
Yeah. That’s a heartfelt song.
Does your spiritual side play a role in your day-to-day decision-making?
You know, I think it does because it’s kind of a guideline for life. It’s kind of a rulebook, you know, a rulebook of good and bad. And I think that when you’re raised with that in your life, it kind of answers a lot of questions that you might have. These are guidelines for good and bad in your life, and that’s just my personal belief, and I find with people who do have spirituality, you don’t see them acting as rude and you see them helping out other people more. I might be wrong, but that’s my personal experience.
Was there some point in your life when things changed for you spiritually?
Well, I grew up going to church. Your dad made you go in those days, you didn’t want to, right, but I think what really kicked it—I can’t really talk about it because it’s too personal—but there were events prior to my dad’s passing that were unexplainable that really shook me up, and there’s no way that you could not believe that there was somebody else out there because it was just too unexplainable, the events that happened prior to my dad’s passing. That was in ’93.
How did that experience affect you?
There’s no way these events right before he died, would have happened. It’s just like if you won the lottery three times in a row, I mean, it was that kind of crazy, and what that proved to me was that there’s something to this, there’s something going on.
What would you do if you weren’t playing music?
I’d be a teacher. I’ve got to be honest with you, I have very little patience, except for teaching. I love teaching kids guitar. That’s what I plan on doing sometime in my life. I love to see kids when they can’t quite put the idea together, and I connect the dots for them, and that lightbulb goes off. I love it. I have patience all day long for that.
Has disaster ever struck the Setzer home?
Disaster? Well, we’ve had our share of ups and downs, but we’ve always pulled out of it. I guess the biggest disaster, you know, is you could say, your parents passing away. My mom’s still around. My dad, he was kind of the rock of the family. When he passed, we said, “What are we gonna do now?”
You’ve said before that you believe in prayer. How does that—or does that—play a role in your life?
Well, like I said, I have my patron saints, and it’s just, it’s a good meditation. Sometimes I’ll go to church, and I’ll just read the Bible, and I won’t even say it along with the Mass, but sometimes, I’ll just sit at home and you know, I believe it does something, I really do. I believe there’s a power there. You know, it doesn’t matter if you do it in a synagogue or by your bedside, but there’s a power there.
What is your biggest blessing?
My biggest blessing, really, is three healthy children. I have three beautiful, healthy kids. Well, my son’s a man now. And my beautiful wife, what a blessing she is. And I was given a gift to play this guitar and make people happy.
If there is a curse, what do you think you’ve been cursed with?
The inability to sit still and shut up. Even back in grade school in class, the teacher would yell, “Setzer, sit down and be quiet.” I’m just one of those kind of guys. I envy people that can just go to the beach and relax and enjoy the day. I could never do it.
What’s your picture of heaven?
I know it’s heavy.
Of course, none of us know…But I think you’re going to see an ultimate peace. I do believe it’s an ultimate peace, and I do believe we will see our loved ones. It sounds simplistic, but I believe there’s an ultimate peace. I believe it’s a place better than this.
You’ll be able to sit down and shut up.
Yeah, without having a teacher telling me to do it!
(c) Troy M. Meier is a freelance writer, musician and producer. This interview appeared in Risen Magazine.