Brian Setzer on the Art of Writing Car Songs and What Made 'Rock This Town' Slap

Car songs are a must on any Brian Setzer album. His latest, Gotta Have the Rumble, is no exception — it opens with the one-two punch of the racer’s taunt “Checkered Flag” and the noir-ish “Smash Up on Highway One.” But the singer, guitarist, and co-founder of rockabilly heroes the Stray Cats favors a particular kind of car. In other words, there’s no Tesla parked in the driveway of his Minnesota home. “No, no, no,” Setzer laughs when asked the question. “That’s a pretty amazing ride, though.”

At 62, Setzer remains loyal to muscle cars and rumbling bikes, and both underscore his image as a rockabilly icon. “I’ve always been into the hot rods. And I love my motorcycles,” he says. “I go for a ride on my ‘57 Triumph. We’ve got beautiful country roads up here in Minnesota, and everybody needs something to kind of clear their head.”

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Many of the songs on Gotta Have the Rumble, released in August, were written while Setzer was out on his adrenaline rides. That energy comes across throughout the LP’s 11 tracks, all of them recorded remotely with Nashville producer Julian Raymond. “Drip Drop” is a bossa nova love song, “Turn You On, Turn Me On” mines a Bo Diddley chunka-chunka beat, and “Rockabilly Banjo” pays tribute to Glen Campbell, whose Seventies variety show Setzer absorbed as a kid.

We talked to Setzer about what it takes to write a good car song, the enduring appeal of his Brian Setzer Orchestra, and the 40th anniversary of the Stray Cats’ breakout hit “Rock This Town.”

You’ve written a ton of songs about hot rods. How do you keep that imagery fresh?
If I’m writing the lyrics, it has to be something that sparks your emotion. What gets me going is adrenaline. If I go for a nice fast motorcycle ride, it pumps me up. I never write a song standing in the shower. There has to be something that sparks me to do that. So car imagery or motorcycle imagery is part of my life. It’s just an emotion to me. But you can’t be too literal with things. Here’s an idea of being too literal: “Well, I hopped in the car/Filled it with gas/Checked the oil.” Well, you can’t say it like that. You know, you have to write about “speeding on a winding road on a rainy night.” Then it becomes a poem.

“Smash Up on Highway One” has a Dick Dale–type guitar line. Were you thinking of him when you wrote it?
Yes, absolutely. With the Stray Cats, we’d do “Miserlou” just as a little break in the middle of the show, and I love that. I thought, “If I could put that in a rockabilly song, that’s how you move the music forward.” You take some new ideas and you put them in that classification, and that’s what makes a new rockabilly record. People ask me, “How do you make this stuff sound new?” That’s how. It’s taking something that’s not in the genre, you put it in, and it becomes something else.

“Drip Drop” is more Herb Alpert bossa nova than rockabilly. How’d you land on that sound?
When you write a record, you go through the hills and valleys of it. After you’ve written a couple of rockers, you kind of sit back and honestly … I live in the tundra, and I was watching the icicles drip. But you can’t really write about icicles dripping. So I said, “Well, winter’s almost over, spring is almost here …What else goes drip drop? My tears.” And we’re not too far from Buddy Holly’s last gig and where Eddie Cochran is from, so I threw in that Buddy Holly hiccup and then I got my gal, my wife, and her friend to sing on it. It’s just a love song.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra remains a perennial live draw, especially at the holidays. What do you make of its enduring appeal?
When I started the big band, a lot of people just lumped it into swing: “Oh, it’s a swing revival.” But I got a full big band. I don’t have a couple of trumpets back there; I’ve got 16 of them! But I started doing it because I loved it. Believe me, there was no way I thought it would work but people wouldn’t let me put that big band away. Every year it got bigger and bigger and it just kept snowballing. Who could not be surprised about dragging 18 people around the stage? I love doing it. But I also love the Stray Cats. I love making music by myself.

Speaking of the Stray Cats, the single release of “Rock This Town” turns 40 years old next year. What do you remember about recording it?
I remember the session because it was in London. It was a studio that is not there anymore. And what I remember was really working on getting the bass sound because the bass was such an integral part to rockabilly. No one had done it.  People played the standup bass in the Fifties, but it had been neglected for 40 years. So I wanted to get the slap on the bass. And I remember moving Lee [Rocker] around. Lee was a fantastic bass player, but we wanted to get that slap and the volume. [Producer] Dave Edmunds wanted to get a clean sound, not too distorted, but not too clean. …  I remember cutting “Runaway Boys” and “Rock This Town,” and when we played them back, we had nailed it. We captured it right there.

The Stray Cats are not yet in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Is that something you want to see happen?
I wouldn’t like to not see it happen. You know, I think it’s an honor. I honestly don’t know how those things work. My guitar’s in the Smithsonian, but I think Stray Cats should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, yeah. But I’m not losing any sleep over it.

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