RAB HOF / LEE ROCKER INTERVEW, 1997
ROCKABILLY HALL OF FAMEŽ MERCHANDISE & SERVICES
WWW ROCKABILLY HALL OF FAME PRESENTS THE
LEE ROCKER INTERVIEW
by Eric Maloney
As nostalgia is "in" and everyone from 20-something Gen Xers to middle age
ex-hippies develop a cultural soft spot for the fashion and fads of their
respective youths, so too has multi-generational music found its way back
into the mainstream. 90s music does not only contend with its own genre on
the charts. Music forms formerly associated with decades past have
re-surfaced, and have been blended together to cast interesting new genres
like ska, a unique blend of a hip-hop backbone garnished with a raggae
rhythm, the frantic horns of 40s jump and a punk attitude. The renaissance
of roots music into the Top Forty has opened the doors of opportunity for
rock and roll artists who are true to its original form. Riding this wave
and kickstarting his career is Lee Rocker, whose career can be rejuvenated
by his former role as founding member and bassist for the Stray Cats.
While Rocker could easily travel the 80s nostalgia route and capitalize on
the Top Ten hits generated by the Stray Cats during that decade, he instead
has chosen a road less traveled. As musicians like Fee Waybill and the
Tubes embark on Greatest Hits tours and cash in on the easy buck, Rocker
has opted to move onward rather than flashing back. These days, Lee can be
found only by those who can catch him, tirelessly touring the world with
his newly-formed rockabilly quartet. You'll hear Rocker covering Perkins,
Presley, Berry, and Howlin' Wolf instead of his own "Rock This Town'" or
"Stray Cat Strut." Backstage after his recent gig at Milwaukee's
Summerfest, Rocker shared his thoughts on a variety of topics, from his
former band to the state of country music; from his new band and
forthcoming record No Cats, to the origin of punk rock; and from European
vs. American musical attitudes, to why he doesn't cover the old Stray Cats
Interview: June 30, 1997 - posted Feb. 10, 1998
Go, Cat, Go!
Former Stray Cat Lee Rocker is Back on the Scene
Eric Maloney: Let's begin chronologically with your music career. Where
did it all begin for you?
Lee Rocker: I started on the cello, playing classical music as a little
kid, when I was about 7 years old. Both my parents are classical
musicians. My dad is the solo clarinet for the New York Philharmonic, and
he's a professor at Juliard School of Music. So, I grew up on opera, and
the real start of music - not going back to Elvis, but going back to the
1600s. I did that until about age 12 or 13. At that point, I was
listening to rock and roll and loved it, like any kid, and at a certain
point it wasn't too cool to be carrying a cello to school. You don't get
laid too much with that, you know! (laughs). So I picked up an electric
bass, and always loved roots music, played in blues bands and cover bands,
high school bands throughout the 70s. From the electric bass, I got an
upright bass and around age 14 I was doing both. Eventually, I got rid of
the electric one and went exclusively to stand-up bass. We started the
Cats in 1978, we were all high school friends, playing around Long Island,
and getting into [New York] city at places like Max's Kansas City, CBGB's,
and we kicked around New York. Then on a whim, in the summer of 1980, with
no plan, no manager, we just decided to save the gig money and buy airline
tickets and go to England. It would have been a really smart thing to do
in hindsight to have planned it, but we just went to Europe for the summer
like a lot of kids do. But we went with our instruments, and the band got
signed within about 3 or 4 months, and had a single right after that. It
was pretty much a whirlwind throughout those years.
EM: Speaking of England, Brian Setzer once made some off-color remarks
about England in an MTV interview in the early 80s, referring to the
country as "the little island with the cloud above it." I think it was in
response to what he considered Britain had done with rock and roll as it
was created by Americans. And remember the irony that the Stray Cats made
rockabilly popular again in the 80s, during a time when the charts were
dominated by British New Wave techno-pop.
LR: I don't look at it that way. I love England, and Europe has been a
mainstay in my career since then. At this point, I probably play more
shows in England than I do in America. They've got a love for American
music, which is kinda weird because here it's almost underground in a way,
be it rockabilly music, or bluegrass, or jazz, or real country music - not
the stuff out of Nashville, but the real stuff. And over in Europe they
really view it as an American art form, and I don't know if they do here.
Some people do of course, but not the general public. Here in America,
with rockabilly, a lot of people think of it as 50s music, like "Oh, Happy
Days, let's dress up and do this thing." And that's not the perception
over in Europe, so you know I've got a soft spot for how they look at
EM: Do Europeans seem to be more purist, as music fans?
LR: In a certain way. Maybe it refers to some of the [European
rockabilly] bands maybe don't do it so well, and that may be true. And
there a lot of bands that don't do it too well here either, but at least
there are bands out there doing it. I think music is a real universal
thing anyway, and I can't get down on one country or another about it. You
see rockabilly bands, and bands playing roots music everywhere from Moscow
to Tokyo, and I just think it's great.
EM: It does seem that roots music is coming back, with bands like Squirrel
Nut Zippers on the charts.
LR: Absolutely. Them breaking the Top 40, it's an amazing thing. It's
great. The so-called "alternative" music got so huge, that it's not
alternative to anything anymore. It's mainstream, it's top 40, it's pop,
if anything. Rock and roll - the real thing - it all comes from the same
well, whether it's rockabilly, blues, country, or "alternative country" or
whatever damn title they wanna put on it now. It's definitely back in
America, and it's right on the verge of happening.
EM: Which is fantastic for an artist like yourself.
LR: You gotta do what you do as a musician, or as an artist. As the world
turns and times change, you've got to stay true to what you are and what
EM: The difference between now and the 80s. The Stray Cats were big, and
it seemed like everything in the 80s was huge during the Reagan years.
Bands played arenas, stadiums, and much larger venues in general. How has
the transition been for you, from playing large, sold out halls with the
Cats, with MTV and the groupies - the whole lifestyle, certainly more
glamorous than being a guy on the road making a living.
LR: It is. Although no matter no big a tour is, and how much crew you've
got, and all that, it's still a tour and it's still about that 90 minutes
on stage where you're completely left alone to your own devices up there.
That kind of buzz or high from it, it's the same. There are differences.
The work may be a little bit harder, but I still get the same feeling
anytime I'm on stage. It was always that way, even throughout when the
Stray Cats were #1 in the early 80s. I got the same feeling playing the US
Festival for 250,000 people as I do playing a club for 300 people. That
really is what it's about. I think maybe it would bother some people more,
[depending on] why they got into music, or what they were about, if it was
just to achieve fame, or a whole mountain full of cash. I grew up in a
musical family - although it was classical music - but I do it for the
music. I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't want to go play for 250,000
people, but that's not the motivation. At least, it's not the primary one
by any means.
Rockabilly Hall of Fame Page
EM: Why did the Stray Cats break up?
LR: There were a lot of different factors. The band actually broke up
twice. We had the band together from 1978 to 1984, and part of it was the
grind of being on the road for years on end, and that eat up everything -
our personal lives, everything. We had a good run there, from '78 to '84,
and we broke up at that point sort of for musical things and just being
burnt out. At that point, I did 2 records with Phantom, Rocker, and Slick
- Slick was David Bowie's guitar player, and he played with John Lennon on
Double Fantasy, and is a great, talented player; and we did that with Jim
[Phantom] from the Cats. And Brian [Setzer] went off and did 2 solo
records as well. I guess we each did 2 records. And then we re-formed in
'88, and went to '92. Really, it's like, we're friends, we grew up
together, we've known each other probably since we were 10 or 11 years old,
and we spent a lot of years in a car sitting next to each other, or a
plane, or a train, and working together, and it really just seemed like
time to do some different things. I'm real happy doing what I'm doing, and
Brian is, and so is Jim. We talk, we're friends, but it's a relationship
that kind of ran its course in a way, you know?
EM: Brian Setzer has a big band orchestra, and you've got a rockabilly
quartet. What is "Slim" Jim Phantom doing these days?
LR: He owned a nightclub out in Hollywood for years, called the Diamond
Club, a big honkin' place on Hollywood Boulevard. He sold that about a
year ago, and has been playing with a band out in California called
Thirteen Cats, a rockabilly band that he just started up. I did a show
with them just about 2 weeks ago. Jim, I talk to about every couple days.
We're really the oldest friends. We were in sixth grade class together, and
we're buddies. Brian, me, and Jim grew up within 2 blocks of each other,
sleeping over each other's houses, rehearsing in my dad's garage and all
that. There's a lot of years, a lot of good times, and also a lot of water
under the bridge.
EM: The title of the upcoming album is No Cats. Is that indicative of a
"coming out" party for you?
LR: The record came out on June 30 in Europe. Right now we're selling it
through mail order, and at shows, waiting for the proper release on it.
[The title has] been taken a couple different ways, but really what it
meant to me was, like you said, as a sort of coming out kind of thing.
Really, sort of to signify that this is really my first true solo record.
Although I've got a great band put together, and they're all on the record
on different tracks, I used a lot of different players on it. I've got a
track with Leon Russel, who I sat down and wrote with, and he sat down and
played piano on a track for me. Elliot Easton, from the Cars, plays guitar
on some of it. So it's really a solo record. I was thinking about calling
it Look, No Cats (laughs).
EM: That might have been perceived as a little below the belt.
LR: Yeah, and it wasn't intended to be anything negative at all.
EM: You'll get used to answering that question a lot, about the title.
LR: I assume so, but that's fine.
EM: Rockabilly does well in clubs on the coasts, in New York and
California. But do you see roots music re-emerging in the Heartland? The
midwest hasn't heard much from you in recent years.
LR: I've only recently been playing the Midwest again, and it's been
great. But it's not just limited to rockabilly anymore. It's that whole
American Music movement. So it comes down to what people are calling
alternative country, and Squirrel Nut Zippers as we talked about with swing
music, and rockabilly and blues. There's a great scene for it now, and
it?s all American Music. In the past year, I've been lucky enough to do a
bunch of things with Willie Nelson, who, in my mind, is one of the real
mainstays of Americana, in American Music. The whole thing kind of crosses
a lot of lines. I've been able to play with some great country people
EM: Do you think country music is still not recognized in the mainstream,
for its contribution to, or influence on, today's mainstream music? And
there really are 2 factions among the country community at that.
LR: Well, to a certain degree I don't blame people, because so much of
what has been coming out of Nashville is just such crap. I mean, it sounds
like a bunch of real corporate-formula-written songs. The stuff I love is
Willie Nelson doing "Bloody Mary Morning" or "Whiskey River," or the Hank
Williams stuff from the old days. I do think that a decent amount of
people don't realize where things come from. But maybe that's the job of
musicians, and the people who are really into music to understand, and the
other people can just kind of dig what they dig. I was asked a similar
question recently, about Carl Perkins. I've been playing with him quite a
bit over the last couple years, and to me to sit down with him is like what
it is for some 17 year-old kid to hang out with the guy from Bush or
something (sighs, and then laughs). To me, Carl's the legend - and there
may be a lot of people now who don't know who he is, but the musicians sure
as hell know. I did a lot of work for a record he just put out called Go
Cat Go, and I did a track with Carl and John Fogerty, and another one with
Carl and Paul Simon, and George Harrison and Paul McCartney are on the
record. And I was asked a similar question for a biography that TNN did on
him, and I've got to realize once in a while that where I am is different
from where a lot of people are. I'm into seeing how things have
progressed, and what they've been built on.
EM: You can really hear the country on Fogerty's new one,
Blue Moon Swamp.
LR: Oh, it's an unbelievable record.
EM: A modern rock or "alternative" band like Soul Asylum. I saw them
recently, and there is a noticeable country influence there, that I doubt
most listeners get. Any time an acoustic guitar plays the rhythm in a rock
song, it comes directly from country music. I don't like country music
much, but it is responsible for a lot of what you hear in rock music, even
today's rock music.
LR: Absolutely. There's a great young guy I've been hanging out with,
Jesse Dayton, who they're tagging now as "alternative country," along with
Jason and the Scorchers who have been around forever and are old friends of
mine. And it does my heart good, but it's funny to see that they've got to
give it a tag or a title for the radio and the record shops. But it's
getting back to what it was about in the first place. And rockabilly was
the hybrid of all those things - blues, country, and hillbilly music - and
to me, it was the original punk music. I've said that a lot, and people
are looking at me, and some journalist is going, "What? What are you
talking about?" But when Elvis came out, and Jerry Lee, and Little Richard
- "Tutti Frutti" was not a song about ice cream - it was pretty shocking
stuff. And with Elvis, they were burning records and saying it was the
devil's music. Not too far from what they're saying about Marilyn Manson
nowadays, you know? It's the exact same thing. It's about energy. I'm
seeing an amazing amount of younger people, people who are sort of
semi-punk, coming down [to the shows]. And that's how it was with the
Stray Cats in 1980 in England - we had the same audience as the Clash and
the Sex Pistols. We're doing a big festival on the west coast on the 5th
of July, called the Hootenanny Festival - it's like the Lollapalooza or the
H.O.R.D.E. thing of this kind of movement of music. It's bands like the
Supersuckers, playing on the same bill as Chuck Berry, and then you've got
me. And then you've got bands like Rocket From the Crypt, who take a more
punk edge, and there are purists, and I fall somewhere in the middle of
that. But it's all a young thing, where the music all has the attitude in
common, just everyone playing roots rock and roll with whatever twist they
put on it. Over the years, they've had the Cramps, Jerry Lee Lewis on the
bill. The plan is to turn this into a national tour like H.O.R.D.E, next
year, to have these bands who are doing swing, punk, alternative country,
and rockabilly, and get it out into 20 or 25 cities.
EM: You've been playing with some amazing musicians recently, probably
some of your heroes. Do you consider that to be a great perk that comes
along with success? And what is some of the company you've kept as a
LR: John Fogerty, Paul Simon, Carl Perkins. On the first Big Blue record
[Atomic Boogie Hour, 1994 Black Top records], which came out a few years
ago, I met Scotty Moore, Elvis' original guitar player for the Sun
sessions. I got him out of semi-retirement to come out and play on 2
tracks on my record, and that was a huge thrill. I've been able to play
with a lot of my idols, guys I grew up listening to. Beginning with the
Stray Cats in 1980, and with Phantom, Rocker, and Slick, then Big Blue,
some stuff I've done overseas, and new solo record - it's now 1997 - I've
put out 14 records during that time. Being around for a while, you meet
some great people. It's been a great trip, and it just keeps going.
EM: You've got a great band playing with you now. Who are
LR: The guitarist is Adrian Demain, a real well-known roots music guy,
especially on the [west] coast. He played in a band called the Forbidden
Kids, they did 2 records and toured everywhere. The drummer is a monster,
a guy I feel real lucky to have, Steve Duncan. He played with Ricky Nelson
in the Stone Canyon Band for 8 or 9 years, a great guitar band called the
Hellicasters, he's recorded with Willie Nelson - his list is too long for
me to even know. It's a permanent line-up now. We're going everywhere.
All around the States, and over to Europe - England, France, Spain,
Belgium, Holland, Germany. We're actually playing 10 shows in Russia,
which is a new thing for me.
EM: Have you been to Russia?
LR: No, but I hear it's rock and roll crazy - it's the wild, wild, west.
It's supposed to be a great place. I kind of think rock and roll is
partially responsible for the Wall coming down over there, the change in
government, you know? It's definitely a force to be reckoned with. It's
freedom, rock and roll music, and they're crazed for it now. I'm excited
to be there. Over the years, I've played a lot in Sweden and Finland as
well. The last time I was in Finland, the band that opened for us on our
tour was a Russian band, while it was still Communist there. I sat down
and drank vodka with these guys for a few hours. They weren't allowed to
bring their families with them on tour, because then they might not ever
come back. And their road manager worked for the Russian government, to
make sure they didn't take off. So it's definitely another world now.
EM: In Russia's transition out of Communism, it seems that while the
political and economic stuff has been difficult to get used to, the people
have had a very enjoyable time adjusting to the more social aspects of
Democracy. Is that where rock and roll has played an instrumental role in
LR: Yeah, I know there's still a real conflict over there, politically
there may be mixed feelings among the people. It should be an interesting
place to hang out, play some good music, and have a ball. Rock and roll is
nice and simple: you just gotta get to the show on time! (laughs).
EM: Your set list includes only one Stray Cats song, "Drink That Bottle
Down" from the first record, never a single and not too many people have
ever heard it. I find that very commendable, especially now as 80s
nostalgia is popular and many bands from that era are getting back together
to play Greatest Hits shows. Your set list skews heavily toward the newer
material, and a handful of rockabilly covers. Do you ever play any of the
Stray Cats hits?
LR: I've made a real conscious decision not to come out and play "Rock
This Town" or "Stray Cat Strut." That's not to say that one night I might
not do it for the fun of it. I haven't done any of the hits in years, but
I do reserve the right to do them. I don't like it when I go and see a guy
from a band that had a lot of hits, going out solo and doing their hits
from those days. It's a new start for me, it's a new band, and I'd rather
fight it out and do it this way, than go out and do the old hits. If I
wanted to do those songs, then I'd do them with the Stray Cats.
EM: The venues you play will almost always follow your name on the bill
with the words, "formerly of the Stray Cats." What's your stance on that,
on playing up your past as you try and build a new band?
LR: I ask them not to lean on that too much. I'm very proud of that band,
and what we did. If they want to use it in their advertising in a subtle
kind of way, not with "the Stray Cats" in huge letters and "Lee Rocker" in
little letters under that, then it's okay. You know, I left the Stray Cats
4 or 5 years ago, and one of the many reasons was I didn't want to grow old
finishing every night of my life on stage playing "Rock This Town" and
"Stray Cat Strut." They're great songs, I love 'em, maybe I'll play them
again at some point, but I did not want to do that. I didn't want to be an
80s band, or an oldies band, and I didn't want to be perceived that way.
It's really about getting back out and building it back up. The fun is
getting there, getting on stage, and winning people over. You've got the
fans who know the more recent records, and then you've got the people who
sit there with their arms crossed. And to be able to see what happens from
the 1st song to the 5th song, and see them getting drawn in, that's the
real fun. I had more fun with the Stray Cats when we were building it,
more than when we had made it. Maybe it's a personality thing, but to me
that's what it's all about.
-Lee Rocker's new album, No Cats, is available on Dixie Frog records in Europe
and Upright Records in the US.