Oh the courage of youth, when taking chances was the easiest thing to do. With dreams of traveling the world playing their music, many a young artist left their hometowns with barely any money in their pockets nor ideas of what would happen when they got to New York City or Los Angeles; the only thing they knew was being a musician was all they wanted. Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker of The Stray Cats were no exception.
It’s 1979 and this trio of guys has latched onto a style of music that is not necessarily the trend of the day. While Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, the Eagles and Tom Petty were running up the charts, bands like the Knack, the Clash and the Police were emerging with a new sound. But in Long Island, New York, Setzer, Phantom and Rocker had discovered the purity, the beat and the style of rockabilly to be more up their alley, whether they had a like-minded audience or not. Taking a chance, they moved to England where they recorded two albums, the first produced by Dave Edmunds in 1981. Compiling songs from those two endeavors, they released Built For Speed in America in the summer of 1982 and became an instant hit due to singles, and their accompanying MTV videos, for “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.” They single-handedly revived a musical genre that had been up and down in popularity since the 1950’s.
But after a few years, the fan interest began to wane and the band members found themselves immersing into other projects: Slim Jim & Lee joined up with Earl Slick to record two albums as Phantom, Rocker & Slick while Setzer played alongside such rockers as Robert Plant, recording his first solo album, The Knife Feels Like Justice, in 1986 and eventually forming his Brian Setzer Orchestra. But their rockabilly roots never really left any of them and they had several reunions, including as the headliners at the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend in 2018, which sparked the desire to make a new album.
“Making a new Stray Cats album for 2019 in Nashville seems like the exact right thing, right time, right place, and right band for the gig,” stated Phantom in a press release last year. “We have an album’s worth of new songs that are classic rockabilly while keeping the music and style current and fresh, like always. In other words, a Stray Cats album.” That album, 40, was released two weeks ago on May 24th. Stockpiled full of that notorious Stray Cats sound, the twelve songs kick back and rock you to another time and place yet featuring a shiny new kick to what could have been a stale rehash of the past. Far from it, songs like “Rock It Off,” “Cat Fight” and “I Attract Trouble” are a Stray Cats fan’s dream come true.
Glide caught up with drummer Slim Jim Phantom last week to talk about the early days of the Stray Cats and what ignited them to go back into the studio.
You are celebrating forty years of Stray Cats music. When you started this band, what was happening in your local music scene? How different were you guys?
Very different. When we started, and this would have been 1979, it was like classic rock, I think, where we grew up on Long Island. Punk rock didn’t really hit Long Island, again this is pre-MTV so you don’t have any of that. So it would have been very much classic rock, cover bands, rock and maybe a few original bands. I’m sure it would have leaned more towards whatever the rock of the day was. New Wave might have had a very brief visit but punk rock was a whole stylish side of rock that never really took off. So it would have been that.
When we started doing it, it was very different. We were kind of too strange for a lot of the major rock clubs. We went on auditions at every club that would have been there in the day and it was uncomfortable, I think, for them (laughs). We walked around 24/7 tooled up – jackets, black and white shoes, hair a foot high – to the 7-Eleven, to the liquor store, to the gigs; just anyplace that we went, we were full-on all the time. So there was no one else that looked that way. Not only was it the music, we really lived that entire life. We had an old car, we tried to seek out places that we felt were fifties, like diners. We just lived that way. So there really wasn’t anyone else but we were very committed. We really thought of no other way of doing it.
Who finally took a chance on booking you?
Well, what we did was, we pretty much made our own scene. We just started to find alternative places to play. We went to any little place that we thought might accommodate us; like what we’d call the drinking bars, regular bars, corner bars. And we would just go and ask, “Can we come and play here? We’ll pack it out with these kids and we promise that we’ll have it packed out and you keep the bar and we’d keep the door.” And although they weren’t rockabilly kids, we did have a following of a few dozen that turned into a few hundred kids that would just follow us around and they would have looked more like anyone who would have gone to see a regular band. They weren’t particularly stylish but they loved us. We were the local eccentrics, I guess, who played rock & roll and they didn’t know about the history of it or that anyone was doing it before us. And we didn’t really care. We had these people and they were the bit of the rough crowd who lived around us and they just kind of followed us everywhere, they protected us a little bit. You couldn’t be in their sight at all times, of course, but they were our original fans. But we wanted a little bit more than that. We wanted to make a record eventually and we really wanted to see the world a little bit outside of where we lived in Long Island.
When you went to England, did you make an instantaneous connection or did it take a little while?
Well, we went to England not knowing a soul. We didn’t really plan it that far in advance. We found ourselves kind of kicking around, really not knowing where to go. We maybe thought that we’d arrive and there’d be some instantaneous scene but I don’t know if we thought it through all the way. But we went there and kind of got the newspapers, the music mags kind of thing, and saw where we might see a cool band. I remember early on we went and saw the Cockney Rejects, a crazy punk rock thing, and they kind of kicked us out of there almost, a fight broke out, “Look at these Teddy Boys.”
So we didn’t quite think it through and we thought that anyone who was into any music with any haircut was cool, which turned out to be the case after a little while, because the Stray Cats kicked around enough, knocked on enough doors and got a few gigs, opening up for the opening up band, that kind of thing, going on in the afternoons. There would be five bands on the bill at a pub and we’d be going on first at 4:30 in the afternoon. But we’d met a few people at some parties and had a little bit of a, buzz might be a strong word, but we had met a few people just from being out and knocking on doors and turning up at gigs that we thought might be cool.
And we were good at it. That’s the thing, we’d been doing all these gigs in New York so when we finally got a couple of opportunities to play, we knew all the cards were on, everything was on the line, so we stepped up and we were a good band and we managed to deliver. Just think about it, Stray Cats were kind of children at this point, we were virtually homeless and just turning up and playing rock & roll every chance that we had and started a buzz. I think over there you could do that a bit more, cause it’s small, really, is what it comes down to. If you get a buzz going in London it can transfer very quickly to like a national interest. Get a few of the music papers involved there, and there were five or six of them a week, so they needed something to write about and that was the genesis of it all, really.
And you could play with different types of bands. I talked to Carlene Carter about this and she was on a bill with the Clash. You could have different people on a bill there.
Yeah. There was a different little scene there and the Clash were friendly with like Nick Lowe and The Damned, cause Nick Lowe produced the Damned album so that was a quick connection to it there. And Carlene Carter was married to Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds was his partner in Rockpile. So they were some of the first people that were interested in it.
Do you think the people coming to see your shows really knew who Carl Perkins was and Eddie Cochran? Or did they just like what they were hearing from the Stray Cats?
That’s a good question. I think that the British when we first met and we learned about the Europeans, there was a little bit more of an awareness of who the original rockers were. There was definitely more of an understanding. I don’t think that everyone who walked around or was into a rockabilly kind of thing was aware of the history of it but there was a little bit more awareness of it and there was a certain amount of rockabilly kids. But I don’t know if our audience was really, they were punk rockers who kind of naturally fell into the next trend, which wound up being rockabilly, I think spearheaded by us. But there became a little bit of a scene for it and I think some trendy types became rockabillies. But there was definitely more of an awareness of it, for sure.
The new album, 40, retains that spirit of what the Stray Cats have always been except there is a new kick to it.
I think in the past maybe it was time to make a record a lot of times, it was something you did every few years, just part of what your life was. This record was really on purpose and came about when we played a couple of gigs. The main one was we wanted to really celebrate the kind of history of it and all of a sudden it was kind of forty years later. Nobody had really been counting (laughs) but there was an opportunity, there was a big festival in Las Vegas that celebrated this whole lifestyle and music and all things related to this music, which is fashion, design, lifestyle. There are a lot of different aspects of it besides just the music. So we had an opportunity to play. And after we did this show, there was a big feeling of, we wanted to put a bow on it, really. We hadn’t really done a final gig, I suppose is the right word for it, a final celebration, so when we did this gig we pretty much realized, you know, we started out very small, Stray Cats, with a few people there and it might have been trendy, but we never really stayed during the time where it became permanent with a lot of these people. A lot of them started when we weren’t working. And this music, what we’ve learned, is when you, like us, get the bug for it, it’s pretty much a lifetime sentence (laughs); you don’t briefly embrace it.
So to see 20,000 kids from all over the world, with Stray Cats in the middle, it was like the Olympics opening ceremonies (laughs) but they were all rockabillies. It was a very special moment and I think everyone was being touched by it and realized it was a little bit more than a band who made some records. Everyone continues to play, we’re musicians first and foremost, nobody was out of shape or looked too much differently than they did forty years ago, and since we were very young when we started, we’re still the flagbearer for this music lifestyle that’s part of American culture. We kind of just embraced it in a little more of a mature way or realized when you’re young it’s hard to verbalize all this and to really know what it is. You just know you’re up there rocking, I’m the drummer like I said I was going to be and now since there’s been a little time, I think we’re a little smarter and a little more appreciative of it and I think that hit everyone at once.
Having that real positive experience and we did a few more over the summertime; it started out as one but we did two in LA, and those were the ones that seemed to seal the deal and very soon after that, Brian started to get in touch and wrote songs, which is really what it comes down to is these songs. I think that’s the difference between Carl Perkins and the Stray Cats and all these people that you’ve heard about a long time after they stopped making records, was the songs. And Brian got the bug and he just started writing songs and every week would call, “Hey, I’ve got another one.” He would make little demos and play on his guitar and send over to me and Lee and we would make up parts for it. It was talk and then one day it was like, let’s go make a record, we’re going to go to Nashville, we’re going to do it. Then the office got involved in the business parts and it was all game on. It came very quickly; kind of same as always, kind of in the Stray Cats fashion – when things happen, they happen very quickly.
There is a song on this album called “I Attract Trouble,” which is a little different, in that it’s a little darker, a little grungier. Who pointed it in that direction?
We really like that one. Brian had the atmospheric guitar part and when he sent it to me, I heard that it might be a little bit darker, I suppose if you would. Then I said, well, if you play that one on the toms, it’s naturally when you play something sonically on a lower drum rather than say cymbal, that’s just sonically high end, I think that really just made it kind of darker. When he wrote the words for it, it all came into focus. But it was kind of about that riff and then putting that onto the toms.
Drummers don’t get a lot of credit for song creations so what song on the new record do you feel you really made a difference to the song’s outcome?
I know that in the writing there was one called “Three Times A Charm” that Brian wanted to write for me knowing that, like an old Gene Vincent one, where the drums kind of answer the lyric and answer the riff. So I know when he wrote that he had us, meaning he and I, in mind for that one. So that’s one that I could definitely say he wrote with all of us in mind, the drums for sure.
You guys are going to be on tour starting in June, is that going to fill out your year or do you have another side-project you’re working on?
Well, my fiancé Jennie Vee, who plays in a band called Eagles Of Death Metal, they have a busy summer. They actually start first and then I’m going to join on that tour and then Stray Cats goes until September and then Jennie and I have gigs on our own, we do a trio. And we just got a song that Jennie sings, that she mainly wrote, that Jesse Hughes from Eagles Of Death Metal and I helped in a little bit with her, but it’s mainly her song, that is going to be on a new TV series on Cinemax called Jett. We wrote one of the songs, one of the theme songs, and that’s going to come out at the end of June. Then we’re going to do some gigs promoting that, something we can all do together. We also have a line of jackets called Phantom Vee. We did a clothing line of very nice jackets, patched and sewn, all done by Jennie, and curated by the two of us [www.slimjimphantom.com/shop]. That’s going to be another thing that we’ve got going and that’s going to take us to the end of the year.
In your opinion, who is the godfather of rockabilly?
Well, I do think it all begins with Elvis Presley. I know for me it was when I heard the original Sun recordings of Elvis Presley. To me, you can kind of hear track-to-track how rockabilly gets invented. I think there was probably, I don’t know, the hillbillies and there were the blues and I think Elvis Presley was the first guy to put it all together.
I talked to Billy Burnette and he told me how Elvis would come sit and watch his dad play.
Sure, oh yeah, his dad is a huge influence, and his uncle – Johnny Burnette and Dorsey Burnette.
Rockabilly is still going strong and it seems that the Stray Cats are the ones keeping it alive.
That’s what we kind of embrace. That’s part of the big picture, like what we were talking about earlier. It’s funny cause I had that same talk with Brian yesterday. We’re kind of the new torchbearers for this. We heard Johnny Burnette and Gene Vincent was a huge one for us, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly. We were so into this stuff and now I think that kids, younger people, are finding out about those original artists through the Stray Cats and I think that’s something that really should be celebrated on our end. But all roads lead back there, to Eddie Cochran and those guys. You can’t start a new band and do a new rock & roll song without really having some connection to Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, even Chuck Berry. We believe that. Couldn’t always verbalize it but now we’re a little wiser and know what we’re doing a little more.
Portrait by Russ Harrington