Six years ago, when Brian Setzer decided to form a big-band orchestra, he couldn’t even swing a record deal, let alone anything else. “People thought I was crazy,” the former Stray Cat says with a sigh. With all due respect to the Royal Crown Revues of the world, it is the hardworking Setzer, 39, who is the pioneer of the current swing madness. The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s third album, The Dirty Boogie — a rockin’ mix of covers (“Jump Jive an’ Wail,” “Sleepwalk”), a version of his own highoctane “Rock This Town” and other original tunes — is approaching double platinum, and Setzer, who leads the band with his guitar, could not be more pleased. Who’s crazy now, huh?
Congratulations are in order. You’ve had quite the successful year.
It’s weird — we were building up this following, pretty much without any help. Lord knows . . . I mean, is this the first thing Rolling Stone has ever printed on this? Let’s face it: Now swing is huge. But we were doing it six years ago. Last year I was selling 7,000 tickets at the Greek Theater in L.A. with no radio play. Nothing. No MTV or VH1. It was word-of-mouth.
What were the highs of 1998?
Let’s see: When I heard one of the songs from the new album and I said, “Ohhh, this is what I’ve been trying to capture — it’s rockin’, but it’s got the big-band thing going on.” Also my daughter’s first Christmas — that was a nice one. Chicks are going to love that answer.
That’s true. Do you remember when you first heard the original version of “Jump Jive an’ Wail,” by Louis Prima?
I don’t, to be honest. But I remember the first time I heard “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” It was on a jukebox in Max’s Kansas City. This thing had a big arm, and it came across the room and grabbed me by the neck and said, “This is what you should do.”
You had already recorded your version of “Jump Jive an’ Wail” when that Gap commercial came out, right?
When we first saw it, we were like, “Oh, no. It’s gonna blow our song now, because the Gap got it.” But I think the commercial actually paved the way. Like, there wasn’t any scene in Des Moines, lowa, but there is now. So it really helped us a lot.
Your big-band leanings, if I’m not mistaken, started when you almost played with Doc Severinsen when you were in the Stray Cats.
They wanted us to do “Rock This Town” on the old Tonight Show. We didn’t get on, but it came close enough that they asked us if we wanted to use Doc’s big band. And a light bulb went off. That was one of the first times I ever got the idea.
What was the first concert you ever saw?
It was at the Nassau Coliseum [on Long Island], and —it was Jethro Tull and Cold Turkey. I was actually kind of bored. I didn’t get the “sittin’ down, smokin’ pot” thing. When the Sex Pistols came along, I was like, “Thank God.”
When was the last time you went back to your hometown of Massapequa, Long Island?
Almost a year ago. I really missed it. Across the country, people say to me, “Oh, you’re from Lawn Guy Land?” But I think it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I still have friends there from back when we were working on hot rods before the Stray Cats. Living in L.A. now, everyone’s nasty. If you say hello to them, they’ll kind of grunt back.
So do you have any guilty pleasures?
Cigars and scotch. I like McCallan’s straight and Chivas Regal mixed.
Is it true that you and the Joe Strummers go on family vacations together?
We do [laughs]. Oh, we have fun. I can imitate Joe perfectly. [In a passable British accent] “Hey, Brian, don’t forget your cigars. I guarantee you, halfway through the meal, you’ll be wantin’ one.” We’ve been to Hawaii together. We hang out in the desert. We’ve driven down to Mexico. The whole family, in two big ol’ Cadillacs. I think it’s about time we went to them — we’re going to try to go to England over Christmas.
Your thought, please, on the durability of the pompadour hairdo.
It’s a classic, because it fits into the rock & roll scheme of things, but if you go down into Little Italy and walk around, the old Italian guys ain’t gonna make fun of you. A mohawk is great at a club when it’s dark and smoky, but if you want to do anything besides rock & roll, it ain’t gonna work for you. The pompadour is a universal men’s haircut.
Let’s move on to tattoos. When does one say, “Enough is enough”?
This springs from my dad, because he had some tattoos — he said, “Never put anything where a judge can see it. If you have to go before a judge and he sees tattoos on your neck or your hands, you don’t stand a chance.” So I go by those words.