by Eric Maloney

Interview: June 30, 1997 - posted Feb. 10, 1998

Go, Cat, Go!
Former Stray Cat Lee Rocker is Back on the Scene

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 tunes

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 things.

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 you do.

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.

Lee Rocker's
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 recently.

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 result?
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 these guys?
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 politics?
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.