During the pandemic, Brian Setzer has joyfully spent more time on top of his motorcycles.Photo by Russ Harrington/Courtesy of SRO PR
If you had to recreate the famous Iwo Jima banner-raising picture from World War II—but replace the soldiers with those who fly the flag for rockabilly music—Brian Setzer would be the guy on the ground planting the pole.
Likewise, if you had to put four founding fathers on a Rockabilly Mount Rushmore, the thin visage of Setzer’s hero, Gene Vincent, would be carved in stone. “Gene Vincent on those first two albums, he just nailed it. It was youth, it was exuberance, it was the time he was talking about and it was the musicianship,” Setzer says.
“People try and nail that sound, and you just can’t do it! You’re not Gene Vincent, you’re not the Blue Caps and it’s not 1956! That wild abandon that would become rock and roll. I say if you can get anywhere close to those first two albums, you’ve hit a home run.”
Well, Setzer can definitely prepare to run a lap around the bases, as his new record, Gotta Have the Rumble (out August 27 on Surfdog Records) not only shows the surprising breadth of the genre, it’s one of his finest solo efforts to date. Interestingly, due to the pandemic-forced remote recording efforts, he also calls it the easiest record he’s ever made.
“It was so simple and so much fun. I definitely want to do this again for a solo record,” he offers. “I don't know if I could do a Stray Cats record or an Orchestra record like this. The Stray Cats have to be in the same room. And the big band…holy cow! But [Setzer’s co-producer] Julian Raymond really surprised me.”
The record takes its title from the couplet “Can’t be humble/Gotta have the rumble” on raucous opener “Checkered Flag,” one of several gearhead-themed anthems included like “Smash Up on Highway One.” There’s also the pure rockabilly (“Stack My Money,” “Off Your Rocker”), the vocal harmony/Buddy Holly inspired “Drip Drop,” the pun-laden “The Cat with 9 Wives,” the mini-movie narrative of “The Wrong Side of the Tracks,” and the chance-taking standout, “Turn You On, Turn Me On.”
In fact, many of the tunes on Gotta Have the Rumble could be ready-made into storyboarded videos or short movies, something that Setzer always keeps in mind when writing either by himself or—as he does on this record—with Mike Himelstein as well as Stephen “Dibbs” Preston of the Rockats.
“I love the film noir genre, and I’ve always tried to write in that. The dark, mysterious, smoky alleyways,” he says. “I try not to repeat myself, and for ‘Turn You On, Turn Me On,’ every album needs a good Bo Diddley beat. I just started playing it and the words came out.”
Words and music seemed to come easily to Setzer for this one, unable to be out on the road or in the studio due to the pandemic. And it’s time that he’s enjoyed on many levels, including non-musical ones.
“I had a lot of time to write this with no pressure. Not just because of the pandemic, but I needed to take time off because of my ears. I just got to relax and there was nothing to think about. It wasn’t like ‘I have a tour in six months!’ And I don’t think I’ve ever done that!” he says, before tipping his blonde pompadour to a couple of other collaborators.
“And the production, the way that Julian challenged those players to come up with different parts. And the mix by Chris Lord-Alge, holy cow! It’s easy to drop the ball in the mix. But this sounds almost live,” Setzer continues. “He likes reverbs and echo and vibrato just like I do. And he pushes the limit with that to make it sound like a record, not just a live performance.”
Like Houston’s Billy Gibbons of ZZ top, Brian Setzer is known for his extensive guitar collection. But no matter how many different models, styles and types he has, there is one brand he lauds above all others, and that he used the most on Gotta Have the Rumble.
“I always go back to Gretsch. That’s just me. I’m in that world, and it sounds great!” he says. “I used a new model in this record, even after I looked at five old ones. The new one just hit the mark, and I used that for most of the record.”
But it’s the album’s closer that might be the most surprising entry. On “Rockabilly Banjo,” Setzer trades in that Gretsch power to pick and strum the much smaller instrument more associated with country than rock. At first reluctant to put down the tune with a “Johnny B. Goode”-style narrative of a boy making it in music, he says it was an offer he couldn’t refuse from co-writer Preston.
“He said he wrote a song halfway for me. Nobody ever gives me music. They always give me a poem and think it’s a song, but it’s not. Dibbs just wanted to hear me play banjo!” Setzer laughs. “Everybody is always bugging me to play the banjo! I’m hesitant because it’s a beast when you’re out live since you’re playing electric and it’s acoustic.
As to what Setzer will do next live—be it a solo tour, another run with Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker with the decades-running Stray Cats or dates with the per diem-bulging lineup of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, he admits he’s not sure. And he’s not in a rush to make any decisions.
“I’m not quite there with the touring thing yet. It’s gonna be so packed out next year, I think there’s going to be too many people on the road,” he sums up.
“I’m home and doing things like spending time with my kids. Being on the road, you don’t get to see your kids grow up and you miss a lot. I’m enjoying my motorcycles and just hanging around. It hasn’t hit me yet what I’m going to do. But sure, I’d love to play with the Stray Cats again. We have such a good time together!”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE...
Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.