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By Ed Masley
The Republic | azcentral.com
Tue Dec 11, 2012 10:24 AM
Whether leading the rockabilly revival of the ’80s with the Stray Cats or the swing revival of the ’90s with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Brian Setzer has carved out a niche for himself as America’s favorite roots guitarist.
Now, he’s bringing Christmas back to Phoenix with his Christmas Rocks! Extravaganza.
Setzer checked in from the road to talk about his Christmas show, his new line of guitars and why it’s best not to anticipate another Stray Cats tour.
Question: The show you’re doing here in Phoenix is a Christmas show?
Answer: It is. But really? At this point, I play just whatever I want. It’ll probably be half Christmas songs.
Q: So the material that isn’t Christmas-oriented, is it Brian Setzer Orchestra material? Are you doing Stray Cats songs as well?
A: I kind of mix it up. I do some Stray Cats stuff. I break it down to just a trio. We sing a couple songs with four-part harmony. I do Stray Cats with the big band. I do big-band songs. It’s whatever I want to do. I kind of have that luxury.
Q: And you have a line of guitars coming out in the new year?
A: I do. I took two-toned paint codes from 1950s cars and I’m gonna paint them two-toned but not in a 1950s car way. I’m gonna make them so you can see the wood through the paint. I’ve also added improvements to the pickups and some of the hardware that I’ve discovered over the years that makes the guitar play better. I’m really happy with the idea. (Guitar-maker) Gretsch approached me and I said, “Well, it really has to be an upgrade, not just slap a coat of paint on them and call it a new model.”
Q: Are you working on new music?
A: I’ve got about 10 or 15 songs laying around. I record like I did as a kid in high school. I have a 1970 Sears tape recorder. I’ve got my last three albums all on cassette like that. It’s funny. I’m gonna put them out one day just for fun and let people hear how I write music. The rest of it I write out musically as notes on paper, like they did in the old days. I’ve got sheets and sheets of paper with musical notes and lyrics and chord bars. The reason for that is you can record something you really like on a cassette and play it back and not remember how you played it.
Q: The material you wrote for 2009’s “Songs From Lonely Avenue” was great.
A: Oh, thanks. I really liked that record. And one of the songs did get nominated for a Grammy. But I thought I’d get a little more action out of that, to be honest with you.
Q: Do the realities of the recording industry make it harder to get excited about making a new record?
A: No. Not necessarily. I’m in a pretty good spot where I can go in and record anything I want. Recording a big-band record is expensive. There’s no way around it. Because you have to pay 15 people. It’s union laws and all that. If you’ve got three guys in the garage, you’re all just going for it. So it’s a lot different making a big-band record. I have five guys in my saxophone section. You’d think, “Why can’t one guy just play all the parts?” I’ve tried that. And you know? It doesn’t sound right. Everyone plays differently. If you have one guy playing all the parts, it sounds sterile. It’s the same with vocals. If you overdub yourself three times, it sounds like you three times. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it?
Q: Well, it sounds more human when you have more people doing it.
A: It does. Everyone’s breathing in different places. Everyone has a different style. You can really tell.
Q: You mentioned three guys in a garage. Do you see yourself ever doing more work with the Stray Cats?
A: With Stray Cats? Nah. I mean, I’ve done my farewell tour with them. I think we kind of said it. It’s nothing personal. I’ve got other ideas that I’d like to do musically.
Q: What do you think of the Stray Cats records now?
A: I made some great records with the Stray Cats. And I made some crappy ones (laughs). Just like anybody else. If I put on “Runaway Boys,” I can’t believe how good that sounds. And then you’ve got something that didn’t come out right and it’s like “Ugh, I can’t even put that on anymore.” Something like “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Why did we cover a Supremes song and really not change it that much? That doesn’t make any sense to me now. But “Runaway Boys” was pretty revolutionary, bringing rockabilly back in 1980 but making it new.
Q: The Stray Cats were my gateway drug to rockabilly in the ’80s.
A: I don’t see how we could not have been. Unless your dad was so into that music that you had it around the house your whole life. The Stray Cats had to be responsible for turning people on to Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. My parents certainly didn’t know who Gene Vincent was. He had one hit record in 1956.
Q: How does the feeling you get from performing today compare with when you started playing?
A: It’s funny. You think “I was much younger” and you’d think you had more energy. But we’d play 40 minutes. It was like a punk-rock ethos. Get it off your chest, hit ’em over the head and leave. And it was great, don’t get me wrong. But now we play almost two hours, and you’ve gotta learn how to pace that. It’s not as intense as that 40 minutes from 1980. But as far as my guitar playing goes, I think I’m the same guy.
Q: Do you have a favorite guitar?
A: My favorite is my 1959 Gretsch that I played with the Stray Cats. I took it out for a little bit last year and then I said, “Nah.” (Laughs). We escaped a plane in Madrid that crash landed and an explosion in the Chunnel between Paris and London. I thought “My God, it’s a dangerous place out there — not only for a human being but for a guitar.” (Laughs). So right now, it’s just hanging on the wall at home.
Q: It’s good for playing in your living room.
A: Right. It’s a living-room guitar.