Lee Rocker ~ Still Struttin’Along and Rockin’ This Town

Written by on July 15, 2010 in Interviews, July 15, 2010 - Comments Off on Lee Rocker ~ Still Struttin’Along and Rockin’ This Town

Rockabilly stalwart chats with All Access Magazine about Stray Cats legacy and more

Lee RockerOne welcome side-effect of the great punk and new-wave movements of the Seventies and Eighties was a resurgence of interest in the uniquely American music form known as rockabilly, finding fullest fruit in the wildly successful trio called the Stray Cats. These native New Yorkers tapped a genre with roots going back to the Fifties, the formative time when country and folk formats faced off with the rock-’n’-roll revolution that was sweeping the world. In that era, a horde of hep-cat boppers took the primal elements of bass, drums and guitar and cobbled them into a style that would be championed by such landmark artists as Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. Decades after Presley’s mid-Fifties debut – and not long after his 1977 demise – bassist Lee Rocker teamed with guitarist Brian Setzer and drummer Slim Jim Phantom to form the Stray Cats, bringing this homegrown music alive for a new generation of listeners. Happily, Lee Rocker has never stopped tending the flame, and lucky Angelenos will soon be privileged to witness the bodacious bassman’s talents in person, when he brings his band to the stage at downtown’s Pershing Square on Saturday, July 24th. Taking a break from his ongoing cross-country tour, Lee recently took some time for a phone conversation with All Access magazine, to chat about life on the rockabilly road.

All Access Magazine ~ It’s great to talk to you, Lee Rocker. A lot of our readers will always have a place in their hearts for such classics as “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town,” and as a tail-shakin’ treat for all your fans, young and old, we understand that in just a couple of weeks, you’ll be here in the City of Angels to really rock this town once again.

Lee Rocker  ~ That’s right, my band and I will be playing in Pershing Square on Saturday, July 24th.

AAM ~ And it’s listed as a free show, which can’t be beat. Also, we know that for those who prefer not to drive in the downtown traffic, Pershing Square is easily accessible from the Metro Red Line – you just get off the subway, and you’re right there, ready to get down downtown to some cool sounds. So what time will the show start?

Lee ~ It looks like it’ll be around 8, when Flashback Heart Attack opens up for us.

AAM ~ Sound’s great, we’ll be there, and we’re sure that all kinds of cool cats and kitties from all over will be there also. Well, Lee, we see that you are still carrying the rockabilly torch, many years since you and your fellow Stray Cats helped to spur a rockabilly revival when you first got started. You’re known as one of the premier rockabilly standup bass players, yet you were originally trained in classical music, correct?

Lee ~ Yeah, I started off playing the cello as a youngster, I’ve been playing music since I was six or seven years old, but it was in my teens that I really fell in love with early rock-and-roll.

AAM ~ And that’s how you ended up forming Stray Cats – what was it, about 1979?

Lee ~ Exactly, in 1979 in New York. It was me and Slim Jim and Brian Setzer, we were all friends and went to school together, and we started the Stray Cats, began playing around the city, and then we moved to England.

AAM ~ And that’s where you really gained your first major acclaim. It turned out the Brits really took a liking to your classic rockabilly sound.

Lee ~ That’s right, it was in England where we got our first record deal, and made our first couple of albums, and then a lot of people thought we were an English band, as those records were imported into the United States. It was a trip, definitely, and it was a great time in London, the whole music scene was just unbelievable, with The Clash and The Pretenders and Motorhead, and you had punk, and the two-tone scene was going on. It was this amazing time for music in that city.

AAM ~ And yet, despite all those other rock influences, you guys started out as a rockabilly outfit, kind of a rootsy “power trio,” bringing your own brand of post-punk attitude. Of course, punk rock itself exploded first in Britain, before it made its way Stateside, and by 1979, punk had been both a musical and social force for years. So did people maybe associate Stray Cats with punk, even before “new wave” appeared to be a force to be reckoned with?

Lee ~ Definitely. What we did was out of the left field, you might say. Rockabilly music was the original punk rock, which started shaking things up, with all kinds of sweat and passion and energy. It came so long before punk, and it was sort of the predecessor to punk, the original thing. When rockabilly came out people were outraged, and they were burning records. You can see how there was no difference, looking how it was when the Sex Pistols did “God Save the Queen,” and comparing that to when Elvis originally did “That’s Alright Mama.” It was in the same rebellious tradition, and we fit right in with that tradition.

AAM ~ You certainly did, because let’s not forget how people had their suspicions and fears about performers such as Elvis, and his fans – you had leather jackets, slicked-back hair, a bit of the bad-boy vibe going on, not to mention the revolutionary musical melting pot of hillbilly and country music, plus the newly-emerging form known as rock-and-roll, based on the earthy traditions of the blues. This mix was kind of ominous for middle-America at that time.

Lee ~Absolutely!

AAM ~ But Lee, how was that you, personally, turned to rockabilly from your own classically-trained roots, to embrace such a freewheeling style in contrast?

Lee ~ It really just hit me between the eyes, when I first discovered that music for myself. It’s pretty simple for me, it’s the beat, it’s the feeling of it, it’s the look, it had everything for me, and it had that edge to it. And for me, being a trained musician, on top of the look and the passion and the energy, it has talented players, too. One of the places where rockabilly differs from punk rock is the fact that you need to be able to play your instruments to do rockabilly, and that kind of attracted me as well. There are great guitar players and bass players throughout the whole rockabilly tradition. It has all those other elements, plus the fact that you have to be able to play!

AAM ~ And on that note, then, whom might you pick as some of your stand-out performers to look to for inspiration? You’re a bass player, so does anybody spring to mind right away?

Lee ~ Historically, there’s Willie Dixon, of course. And Bill Black, who played with Elvis. But definitely, there are whole bands, overall, that I dig and enjoy seeing, that are on the scene. For instance, I am friends with Reverend Horton Heat, and I like very much what he does, and his band. I like the band Supersuckers a lot, and there’s a band out there called Heavy Trash that I really dig. So there’s a lot of stuff out there, and there are bands I like for different reasons.

AAM ~ Now, if we’re not mistaken, Lee, your last studio album was the “Black Cat Bone” release, right?

Lee ~ Yes, that was the last one.

AAM ~ And are you working on any more studio stuff now?

Lee RockerLee ~ I’m always in and out of the studio! I’ve been kind of experimenting and having fun, and I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing lately. In the studio, I have been working a lot with my band, the guys that have been with me for a lot of years now, and just putting together a live show that I’m totally digging. One of the things that I’m doing is I am playing music from across my whole career, from Stray Cats to Phantom, Rocker and Slick and so on. Especially, I went back and I really wanted to nail the original Stray Cats songs like we recorded them, back when we first started. For musicians, sometimes over the years things kind of veer off, and you change how you do your songs, you forget how you once did them in the first place, and they become something different. So all these years later, I have sat down with my band to tell them I want to play these songs how I played them the day I recorded them. That’s been kind of a weird, creative, cool thing for me to do, and I think we’ve hit the nail on the head with it. We’re doing “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut,” of course, “Runaway Boys,” “Rumble in Brighton,” and a lot of the early Stray Cats stuff, just note-for-note.

AAM ~ And this band of yours will include Brophy Dale and Buzz Campbell on guitars, and Jimmy Cage on drums, correct?

Lee ~ Yeah, you got it!

AAM ~ And with two guitarists, you can have rhythm and lead at the same time, so do those two fellows trade off on the lead licks?

Lee ~ They both trade off on solos, and I love having two guitars, I love the contrast, and it also lets me hit those songs from throughout my career, where in the studio we had overdubs, but now we can bring the sound to life, we really nail ’em.

AAM ~ Excellent! So we see that you and your band are touring from coast to coast, going back and forth. It looks like next week you’ll be at the Mother Lode Fair in Sonora, California, correct?

Lee ~ Yes, we’ll hit Sonora on July 11th, and two days later we’re in New York City, and then Connecticut, and then Boston, and then back in L.A. for the Pershing Square show.

AAM ~ And interestingly enough, later on, in September, you’ll be going back again to the historical Gold Rush territory, for the Auburn Gold Country Fair. It seems that they like you up there in the Sierra foothills, yes?

Lee ~ It sure seems that way. Yeah, California’s great, and we do a lot of shows in California, and yet we do try to go everywhere we can, and we’re happy to do it. You know, I’m from New York, so I’m looking forward to the East Coast shows, and yet I’ve been a California guy for twenty-five years now, so it’s my home away from home.

AAM ~ Lee, we see that you have your own personally-endorsed upright basses available for interested musicians. For starters, there’s the Lee Rocker Model Busetto Bass, made by Kolstein, and yet we also found out about the Silver Sparkle, which appears to be an entirely different model. So tell us about the instruments you’re lending your name to, Lee.

Lee ~ Yeah, I’ve got the Kolstein Lee Rocker Bass, which is sort of a thinner bass, it’s a full-sized instrument, but great to travel with. It’s really sleek, sounds great and plays great. And then I’ve been making the Silver Sparkle basses myself, basically. That is just a really limited thing. I build them for myself, and have fun doing it with a couple of buddies, and we do sell some of them here and there, off the website.

AAM ~ That’s really interesting, because we have another bassist friend, Ted Dubrawski of ACIDIC, who’s also a budding luthier, learning to work on stringed instruments. Do you fall into the luthier category, lee?

Lee ~ I’m more of a customizer than a luthier. I have people I work with who are more into that end of it, but I’m more into how it plays, how it looks, and how the electronics work, rather than the actual carving of the wood.

AAM ~ Okay, now back to your shows – we’ve been talking about your current U.S. shows, which we see listed up into September. Of course, you have been all the way around the world with your music, and we have learned that there are vibrant rockabilly scenes in various locales around the planet. So Lee, in your travels, have you been to one particular country or area where you find that the rockabilly spirit is most alive?

Lee ~ You know, it’s alive and well and spread out all over the world, and I can’t really pick out one place in particular, because there are so many places that have a great scene. And Southern California itself has this amazing roots-rock, rockabilly scene, with the Hootenanny. But it is spread out, it’s really amazing. You know, I’ve played in Moscow and I’ve played in Australia, and there are people who dig this music everywhere. I’ve really got to say, it’s fantastic.

AAM ~ So you’re going to find “rockabilly groupies,” even in a place like Moscow?

Lee ~ Oh, yeah! It’s like I said, it’s music that, in my mind, has everything going for it. It’s got danger and a look and a unique sound and a beat, and for me, it just grabs me, and I think that goes for a whole lot of people.

AAM ~ That goes for us, too! For example, we remember Commander Cody’s cover of “Hot Rod Lincoln” in 1972, long before anybody knew that a rockabilly revival would come along later in the decade, in the wake of punk. You remember that song, right?

Lee ~ Oh, absolutely, fantastic track! Bill Kirchen was the guitar player on that one, and he’s out there just killin’ it, he’s out on the road all the time.

AAM ~ And on the subject of other great players who are definitely still out there, well, it seems that you and your fellow original Stray Cats, Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom, still move in and out of each other’s orbits, every other year or so, is that right?

Lee ~ Yeah, that’s a good way to put it – you know, Brian and Jim and I, we grew up together, it’s sort of like you’re brothers, after enough time, and we do the Stray Cats every couple of years, and it’s a blast! The last time we did it, we played Australia and New Zealand, about a year and a half ago. And I think about two years before that, we toured the States with ZZ Top and the Pretenders, and I’m sure, I would think something’s going to happen again in the future. I mean, I’m having such a good time, you know, doing all of it, doing my stuff, doing the Stray Cats stuff, and it’s all parts that add up to the total.

AAM ~ Now, we remember that when you did “Men Without Shame” in the Eighties, with Phantom, Rocker and Slick, the electric sound of that song really grabbed a lot of people’s attention as a departure from the Stray Cat style. Of course, Lee, even though you also play electric bass, you are primarily known as an upright bass player, so our question is, if you do “Men Without Shame” as part of your current setlist, do you play it on the upright bass, or do you switch to electric, or what?

Lee ~ Yes, with Phantom, Rocker and Slick, I was playing electric bass on that song, and it’s funny you should mention that, because in just the past couple of weeks I have been sitting down with that song again, but with the upright. And I’ve sort of been thinking about if I want to put that one back in the show, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to. I’m not sure if it’s going to be ready or not for the next couple of shows, but it’s definitely on the radar screen, to get back into that song. I’ve had a lot of people writing to me on the Web, people sending videos and live tapes from the Phantom, Rocker and Slick days, and I’ve really been thinking about that.

AAM ~ We really appreciate that feedback – so we’ll just have to wait and see, and we’ll be in suspense until we see you live at Pershing Square on July 24th . Knowing, then, that you have been carrying the rockabilly torch for some three decades or more, do you have any advice, encouragement or words of inspiration you might want to pass on the younger players just picking up their first axe? Do you have a shout-out for the aspiring musicians among our readers?

Lee ~ To the young musicians out there, I would say that the most important thing is to have passion. Do what you love, and follow your gut. Don’t listen to someone who wants to give you advice on what style to play, or try to chase what’s going right now at the moment, so you can be the next big thing. Follow your heart, follow your gut, and you’ll probably be going in the right direction.

AAM ~ That’s right! Lee, we look forward to seeing you in Los Angeles this month, and we wish you continued success and safety on travels around the continent and around the globe. We thank you for your time and feedback, and we’re eager to see what’s next to come from the rockabilly sensibility of renowned bass player Lee Rocker. You’ve been most gracious, and we’ll be seeing you.

Lee ~ Thank you, man – appreciate it!