Unlike you, me and the rest of the world, Brian Setzer welcomed the pandemic shutdown. How's that?
The Twin Cities singer-guitarist-bandleader absolutely, positively needed a break. Doctor's orders. Setzer has tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears — the bane of any musician who likes to play loud.
In 2019, after a successful summer reunion tour with '80s hitmakers Stray Cats, tinnitus forced him to cancel his annual holiday shows with the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
"I needed to put the brakes on. Forty years on the road," Setzer said recently. "This [pandemic] made me slow down because I probably wouldn't have. So it was good timing."
COVID-19 knocked out any chance of a holiday tour in 2020 and 2021 (he had to decide by February, when vaccines were just ramping up).
So Setzer recorded a solo album. In isolation. Remotely.
He made "Gotta Have the Rumble" — out Friday, his first solo album in seven years — by recording his guitars and vocals in the Terrarium, a northeast Minneapolis studio, with engineer Jason Orris.
"It was the easiest thing," he said. "There was nobody else in the studio. [It wasn't:] 'One guy's on the phone, one guy's got a hangover. I make a mistake and we all have to do it again.' It was just me and the engineer."
Actually, Setzer thought he was just making demos of a few songs. But producer Julian Raymond — with whom he'd worked on a 2011 Glen Campbell album, "Ghost on the Canvas" — wanted to hear the demos. Raymond said he had a way of making an album happen remotely.
"The drummer was in Nashville and the bass player was in Memphis," said Setzer, who calls himself an "old-school guy" accustomed to everyone recording together in the same room. "I wasn't expecting much but he sent it back and I was pretty blown away by it."
Setzer hasn't even met his rhythm section. "I barely know who they are. I know Dave Roe was Johnny Cash's bass player for the last [several] years. The drummer [Victor Indrizzo] is from Long Island. He got it. He almost played like a big band drummer."
"Gotta Have the Rumble" is a splendid showcase for Setzer's versatile guitar mastery, embracing surf twang, spaghetti western film music, jump blues, rockabilly bop, bluesy rock and his signature twang-abilly.
He chose the title for two reasons: motors and guitars.
"The rumble of motorcycles and hot rods, that's me. That inspires me. But it's also about me missing that sound of my guitar amp that makes the guitar rumble.
"Dealing with tinnitus — picture a tea kettle going off in your head all the time — it was maddening. It never goes away. You deal with it. I felt despondent that I wouldn't be able to use my nice big Fender amp again. It [the title] really fit my life right now."
Duluth at 135 mph
Setzer, 62, vividly remembers the first time he drove fast.
"The first time I got that adrenaline rush was when I first started with hot rods when I was a teenager. ... That's really how I write songs. I need some kind of rush. It could be adrenaline from going fast. It could be love. It could be anger. ... I can't write a song taking a shower."
He also recalls a drive he took after moving to Minnesota about 18 years ago.
"I took my gal up to Duluth 'cause I wanted to see it. She said, 'You realize you're doing like 135.' I go, 'Yeah, but there's no cops out here.' She said, 'Yes, there are. They're hiding.' "
He didn't meet the police that time but he's since received tickets in Minnesota.
Vibing with L.A. lyricist
Living out by Lake Minnetonka, Setzer rides his motorcycles and clears his head. Melodies come to him, some sparked by ideas from lyricist Mike Himelstein, who helped pen six of the new album's 11 numbers.
"He came to a show and introduced himself about 20 years ago. We just hit it off. I've had that with very few people. I had that with Joe Strummer," the late Clash frontman, who collaborated on two tracks for Setzer's 1996 album, "Guitar Slinger."
A professional songwriter in Los Angeles for four decades, Himelstein has also collaborated with Stray Cats and blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa while working on many Disney projects including Winnie-the-Pooh and the Mickey Mouse Club.
"Brian is a big title guy," Himelstein said. "He always had 'Rockabilly Riot,' which I thought was just a great title, so I sent him lyrics."
He and Setzer came up with the new song "Stack My Money" via a phone conversation about how neither had lived up to his parents' expectations. "Learn a trade, young man. Music isn't a career" was what both heard.
"I didn't take my dad's advice," Himelstein said, "and here I am unloading a truck [full of cash]."
In "The Cat With 9 Wives," Himelstein penned a line about twins from the Twin Cities who married the same guy. "I had to get nine wives into a song at a manageable length, so the idea of having twins was to save some time," the lyricist explained.
Said Setzer: "I read the lyrics and I laughed. That's so clever.
"I collect guitar riffs. I pull out my trusty plectrum holder and my sheet music. I think I've got something that will fit. I wrote the song in like 10 minutes."
Setzer's own wife, Hopkins-reared Julie Reiten Setzer, sings backup on two tunes with a bandmate from her 1990s Twin Cities group the Dust Bunnies, Jennifer Goforth.
"I let them talk at the end of 'Off Your Rocker.' I said, 'I want you girls to give me a sass.' I would answer them, and they would cut me off. We did it for a laugh, and it came out so funny that we left it on the record."
The closing track on "Rumble" comes with a self-explanatory twist, "Rockabilly Banjo."
"My grandfather gave me a banjo when I was a kid. I used to take it to school and play 'She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain' for singalongs," Setzer recalled.
At the same time, he was playing guitar — which of course became his favored instrument.
Club date in Twin Cities?
While he's still chilling in the Twin Cities during the pandemic, the three-time Grammy winner would like to put together a little club band to play at the Dakota in Minneapolis or the Iron Exchange in Maple Plain with St. Paul drummer Noah Levy, who is a member of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and a bassist to be named later.
Setzer grew up on New York's Long Island, where he formed Stray Cats in 1979 with two school friends, bassist Leon Drucker, aka Lee Rocker, and drummer Jim McDonnell, aka Slim Jim Phantom. They became 1980s MTV sensations with "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut."
"I really want to play with the Stray Cats again," Setzer said. "It was really surprising the turnout and response we had, and I really had a good time with the boys. In Europe, it was crazy the amount of people. And we didn't play too much here [in the States]."
While his tinnitus will never go away, Setzer feels it's under control.
"It happened in Amsterdam. There's nothing I could do on the road. The earplugs fell and I thought: 'These guys are so loud.' All of a sudden, it came on. It's a nightmare. You have to give yourself a break. You have to start wearing hearing aids that play [noise-masking sounds] like leaves rustling.
"Eventually it gets better, and you get used to it. You just gotta tough it out. The COVID came just at the time when it [tinnitus] was at its worst and it forced me to take a break."
One thing that's always under control is Setzer's vintage hairdo. Unlike you, me and most of the rest of the world, he has a fabulous pompadour.
"You gotta start with good product. The modern stuff is too expensive, and it doesn't do anything. Go with the old Murray's [pomade]. Put a little of that so it'll hold, then comb it the way you like it and put a little bit of quick spray to hold it. That'll give you the good look. You've really got to get that greasy hold going."
Then he's ready to rock and rumble.