Rockabilly icons The Stray Cats celebrate 40 years of jumping and jiving with a new album, as Lee Rocker reflects on a lifetime of slapping the double bass.
Stray no more. Lee Rocker, guitarist Brian Setzer, and drummer Slim Jim Phantom — collectively rockabilly’s pick of the litter known as Stray Cats — are back and sharper than ever. Some 40 years after they formed in the Long Island town of Massapequa, New York, and 26 years since their previous record, the Cats have clawed their way back with 40. Although it marks said anniversary and delivers the trio’s rockabilly revival staples, with songs about cat-fightin’ gals, bad-boy rebels, and supercharged cars, the 12-track platter also explores new harmonic and rhythmic terrain. No doubt it’s the result of the three being years more proficient and curious on their axes, and more comfortable in their musical creativity.
The 57-year-old Rocker remains undersung outside of the realm of dedicated upright slappers who have followed in his propulsive path. In the ’80s, he helped make the acoustic bass popular again in an era of bright-toned, active bass guitars and keyboard-bass-laden synthpop. And the Cats certainly had a jump on the current wave of rootsy, acoustic-instrument-driven supergroups ranging from the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons to the Mavericks (the latter anchored by Bass Magazine contributor Ed Friedland).
Since the Cats’ initial breakup in 1985, following smash hits like “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” and millions of records sold, Rocker has remained true to his art. He formed Phantom, Rocker & Slick (with guitarist Earl Slick), leading to two records and the MTV hit “Men Without Shame.” His 14 rockabilly-infused solo albums include one departure in 2011’s The Cover Sessions [UpRight], on which he reimagined songs by the Beatles, Allman Brothers, and Elton John in a minimalist, Americana style. He has performed with Carl Perkins, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Leon Russell, the Ramones, and Scotty Moore, and he briefly joined the cast of the 2011 Broadway hit Million Dollar Quartet, playing the role of bassist Clayton Perkins (brother of Carl). And there was a steady stream of Cats reunions, resulting in four more albums in the late ’80s and early ’90s, tours in 2004, 2007, and 2008, and a single show in 2009 for Setzer’s 50th birthday. Apparently, even while the cat’s away, these Cats will play.
What was the path to this record?
In the summer of 2018, for the first time in about nine years, we decided to do four shows — two in California, one in Las Vegas, and one in Chicago. We met up, got onstage, and it just rocked. The chemistry was there, the band sounded better than ever, and there were audiences of 20,000 people singing every word. So I said, “Man, it’s time. We should be doing this again.” That led to us talking about how we were coming up on our 40th Anniversary, and how it had been 25 years since we’d done an album. And by October 2018 we were in Blackbird Studio in Nashville tracking the record.
You cut the record live.
That was the plan, because the impetus for the album was the four concerts. We’re at our best as a band when we play live, so that’s how we recorded: all in the same room, standing shoulder to shoulder and playing at concert volume, and we didn’t have to use headphones. We were trying to capture what it is we do onstage. There were little two-foot-tall walls between us, and some ceiling carpets were hung to reduce some of the bouncing and bleeding. We did a few overdubs later, and obviously there was post-production with delays and reverbs, but for us, the studio is not the fourth instrument, as it is for some bands. With the Cats, you don’t want to overproduce and overthink it. This album very much reminds me of our first record [Stray Cats, 1981, Arista], which came out only in Europe, with Dave Edmonds producing.
How did recording that way affect the music?
It enabled us to look at each other and hear each other with the intensity and focus of playing onstage. We’re a rock band, but in a way, we operate like a jazz band. The songs are never played the same way twice. Everything is a conversation between us. If I finish a chorus a certain way, Brian and Jim will hear it and answer me. Or if Jim plays an accent, we’ll all jump on it. Playing with that kind of spontaneity and fluidity is a blast.
Who wrote the songs?
I wrote and sang lead on “When Nothing’s Going Right,” and Brian wrote and sang the other 11. But we all have a lot of input in our parts and the arrangements; they sort of evolve as we go. We were sending back and forth working demos before we got to the studio. We had 17 or 18 songs, and we whittled them down to the 12 that best fit the album.
How do you come up with parts for new songs?
I listen to the song and try to provide what’s needed, and then everyone works off that. There’s very little discussion over our parts; we just play what we think works and try to put our stamp on it. Occasionally, someone will say, Hey, can you try this or that. What I love about the Cats is the vast amount of sonic and musical space I get to occupy, with no other instrument down there in my domain; I get to stake out the low end. For inspiration, I still go back to my biggest influence, Willie Dixon. When you listen closely, his parts are always a little different from what you think they are, and that’s what I tried to do on this record. A great example is Willie’s part on Chuck Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah” [Chess single, 1958]. I was fortunate to see him play when I was a teenager.
What basses did you use?
I played three different instruments. Two are King Doublebasses made by Jason Burns, who went on to start Blast Cult. The third is my signature Kolstein Busetto Travel Bass, which has a slightly thinner, teardrop-shaped body, a full-size neck, and a carved top — I used that only on the blues tune “That’s Messed Up.” The two Kings are set up differently: One has steel strings, EMG active pickups under the strings, and a piezo pickup behind the fingerboard. It has a heavy low end with a lot of sustain, and that was my sound from the early days; it’s on tracks like “Rock This Town,” “Runaway Boys,” and “Rumble in Brighton.” When I started out, there was no good, established way of amplifying an upright bass for a rock band. I basically nailed an electric bass pickup to the bottom of the fingerboard, which gave me low end and volume without feedback. Soon after, I added a piezo pickup to run through a second channel, to get some finger and slap sound — but the early piezos were feedback machines! Over the years they have vastly improved, with great tone that doesn’t color the instrument’s sound, and no feedback. The other King I used has gut strings and a piezo pickup, for a much more traditional sound. There’s a nice attack and a natural decay. I use the gut-string King for slap-heavy tunes like “Rock It Off,” “I’ve Got Love If You Want It,” and “Mean Pickin Mama.”
How were the basses recorded?
I always have a blend of three or four sources. At Blackbird we took a direct signal from the pickups, which meant two signals on the steel-string King; we miked my Ampeg SVT rig, which was on its side, horizontally; and we had a high-quality tube mic by the ƒ-hole and the bridge. If I’d been recording in an isolation booth, I would have added a mic about three feet away for room sound. Vance Powell, our engineer, did a great job capturing my bass tones.
Perhaps more so than on your previous records, there are songs that extend beyond traditional rockabillly, like “Cry Danger.”
The casual fan sometimes puts us in a rockabilly box, but the band is very diverse, especially for a trio. For this album we focused on trying to show our musical growth. “Danger” is a cool track built on Brian’s George Harrison-esque, backwards “Day Tripper” riff. I used my steel-string King to provide a big foundation, and I came up with a two-bar pattern that worked [basically two half-notes followed by four quarter-notes].
“I Attract Trouble” has elements of camp and humor often present in Cats songs, and a cool half-step motif.
Right — that has a campy vibe, and musically it’s sort of a nod to the Cramps and punk psychobilly. I used the steel-string King to lock it down. We’re actually a pretty funny group of guys to be around, so we like to have that element on our albums. We wanted to make a fun, cool, feel-good, rockin’ record that could take the listener away from all of the craziness going on in the world right now.
The instrumental “Desperado” summons the Ventures and the late Dick Dale, as it continually modulates upward.
There’s a considerable surf element to that track; it’s a tricky tune that we worked on for a couple of hours. It took me some time to sort out what I wanted to play and how. I’m not slapping — it’s traditional plucking on my steel-string King. Afterward, my tech said, “I can’t believe it!” I had pitted the fingerboard and there was sawdust on the floor. I was playing so hard for so long on the steel strings that we needed to get the board sanded and refinished!
“Devil Train” sounds like a slap tour de force, with its galloping groove and spaghetti-western coloring.
For sure, that was a major workout. Brian said, “This song is all about the bass.” I’m pretty much playing the galloping figure [an eighth-note and two 16th-notes] for the entire track; that’s the engine that drives it. I used my gut-string King. It’s a little reminiscent of a song we did called “Gina” [from Blast Off!, 1989, EMI], but this is darker, in a minor key.
How did your song, “When Nothing’s Going Right,” come together?
I wrote it specifically for the album. It’s not full-on rockabilly. I had been listening to Rockpile, Dave Edmunds’ old band with Nick Lowe, so the song has a rockabilly flavor, but it also crosses into early-’60s rock a bit. I used my gut-string King, and the bass line is a set pattern as opposed to just walking through the changes. I also like the counterpoint between Brian and me; he came up with a different guitar part for each verse. I brought in another song called “Doughouse Shuffle” that didn’t make it onto the album. I’m going to record it with my band and release it this summer. As for the Cats, we’ll tour in support of this record for the rest of the year, and while we’re out there, we’ll discuss potential plans for 2020. The response has been very gratifying, from our longtime fans to younger fans who have discovered us via the internet.
How have you grown as a bassist and musician since the early Cats days?
I feel I’m much better. My goal, like all musicians, is to steadily improve and increase my musical vocabulary. I’m fascinated by the bass, and I’m always playing it. I’ll discover something new and I’ll think to myself, Damn, really? After 45 years of playing the upright bass, you just figured out you could do that? I have a never-ending passion for the instrument. And it’s not just me — the whole band is better now than ever before. I love how we’ve all grown while retaining what makes us who we are. I remember when we opened for the Rolling Stones in 1981. We did the first stadium show, and we were standing together in the middle of the stage, as we still do. Afterwards, Mick Jagger came back to see us, and he said, “It sounds great, but you have a giant stage — use it!”
Watch Stray Cats recording “Rock It Off” in the studio.
Stray Cats, 40 [2019, Surfdog]
Basses Kolstein Lee Rocker Busetto Travel Bass, Kolstien Lee Rocker ¾ Model Tuxedo Bass, two King Doublebasses (with gut and steel strings)
Strings Efrano gut strings, Jargar medium steel strings
Pickups Planet Wing
Amp Ampeg SVT-CL head with SVT-810E cabinet, Ampeg Heritage B-15N