Stray Cats Collector’s interviews Lee Rocker!

LEE ROCKER - Interview SCC 24.3.16

Last Thursday, 24th March, we were very honoured to talk on the phone with Lee Rocker for about one hour and have this fantastic interview. I would like to thank Lee Rocker himself for calling us and Buzz Campbell, who made this possible. From the Stray Cats Collector’s desk… THANK YOU!

Now, dear readers… sit back and enjoy!

Hello Lee! First of all, I would like to thank you for accepting this interview. As a fan of yours, I feel really honoured. 

Oh! No problem, thank you!

Lee, since the Stray Cats years are pretty much well covered, I would like to focus on your solo projects. But first of all, I am curious to know a bit about your background. Where did you grow up? How were your school days?

I grew up in New York, in the suburbs of New York City, about 30 miles outside the city in a town called Massapequa. I grew up with childhood friends like Brian Setzer and Slim Jim and started the Stray Cats in the late 70s, but we knew each other much longer than that. Probably since we were 10 years old, since we were little kids in the third or fourth grade.

As far as early times, I am from a family of musicians. My dad’s a classical clarinetist with the New York Philarmonic for 61 years and a professor of music. And my mom was also a clarinetist, a teacher of music. So I was surrounded by music from a really young age. I think one of the main things really growing up at my parents house was that everyone played an instrument. You took lessons, you learned music, you played music. They were always incredibly supportive and still are. Both of them are in their late 80s but are doing very well.

From the point of view of a musician, what do you recall learning from them? Were they supportive when you moved to London with Brian and Jim? 

They were very supportive. The music that I learnt from my dad was more than just being surrounded by it. What I was doing back then and what I do now is much more different but in a sense, you know, playing rock and roll. It wasn’t lessons but I definetely learnt a lot just from listening and watching. One of the things that I really took from my father was his serious stage presence, which can be unusual for classical music but I recall watching that from an early age. The band started in our garage, that’s where the rehearsals took place, that’s where everybody hung out. So that was kind of the birth place. They would pop the car out loaded with amplifiers and played music for a lot years there.

When you first moved to London in June 1980 with Slim Jim and Brian, what are your fondest memories? What was the best but on the other hand, what was the hardest? 

There were so many amazing things! In a certain sense, things happened so quickly looking back. Maybe it didn’t feel at the time but it was really like been shot out of a cannon. Before even London was developing, getting a serious following and packing up houses in Long Island like Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s. We had a serious situation going on here. We moved to London and things took off even quicker. I think there were so many high points, it was so exciting. I was just 17 and moving to London…

One of the many high points was playing at The Venue in London very early on and The Rolling Stones came on, they sat at a table at the front row. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were there, that was pretty amazing. For being a kid growing up in New York and within weeks of getting to London having them show up and then the newspappers along with them and the papparazzi. That was for sure a high point.

On the other hand, low points there weren’t so many but definetely spending nights sleeping at Hyde Park and sleeping in all-night movie theatres and just kind of wandering the city. Sometimes being hungry and not really knowing what the next day would bring. But with that said, it was fun.

We moved in June and probably after 2-3 months we were pretty stable. We managed to get a one room apartment and the three of us shared it. That was good enough.

Fast forward to 1984: the Stray Cats were 4 members. Tommy Byrnes as a second guitar player. How did you guys met him and why did he become part of the band?

I love Tommy! He was part of the band but not a band member.

Tommy is a guy we grew up with. Also a guy from New York and he was a good friend and a good player. There was a band he was in, the BMTs and he was the guitar player. He was always a very talented guy and we went from that band to play with Billy Joel for many many years and that is what he does now. With Tommy it was more of a period of trying something new. That was right before we broke up for the first time and I think that Tommy continued working with Brian on his first solo record, not pretty sure about it.

In late 1984, Stray Cats disband for the first time. What projects were you involved before and after Phantom, Rocker & Slick, until you guys got back together in 1988?

That time was really devoted to Phantom, Rocker & Slick. I remember doing some sessions or appearances. I am terrible with what happened in different years but I am pretty sure that I started doing some stuff with Carl Perkins around that time.

Anyway, very proud of those two records (Phantom, Rocker & Slick – 1985 | Cover Girl, 1986), specially the first one. It was a really solid record that I am very very happy with even to this day.

Phantom, Rocker & Slick reunited for a one-off show at the “Summerfest” in Milwaukee. Were there any plans of going on tour after that show? And now that David Bowie has unfortunately passed away, would you three consider that option?

I love Slick, we are in touch often and we got together and play a couple things and we have a lot of fun. I wouldn’t say never, but my focus at this time is my music and the group of musicians that I have been working with for last few years. I don’t really see any focus from me right now on Phantom, Rocker & Slick or Stray Cats stuff.

During the Phantom, Rocker & Slick years and now as a solo artist, you’ve moved from playing on your left side of the stage to playing in the centre. Where do you feel more comfortable? Are there any times on your shows that you would like to be somehow behind the band for a couple of songs?

I feel super happy with where I am now and with what I am doing at the moment. Recently I have been adding a piano player and really encouraging and directing the band in a different way, where I think one of the changes is that, I have everyone in the band being multi-instrumentalist and playing a different number of instruments and I have been adding this piano player who sings… I have been adding a few different people to the equation. And I have done that over the years. Going back to the Phantom, Rocker & Slick stuff, we had Ian McLagan and Nicki Hopkins on those records playing piano.

Playing with a larger group, I am also having my son Justin playing guitar with me on ocassions which has been a fantastic experience and he is doing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, some electric bass and some upright bass. So I can really say that I have everybody playing a different number of instruments and I have been doing a bit more of acoustic guitar during the shows.

What do you recall about the Ruffnexx Trio with Jamie James of The Kingbees and Slim Jim Phantom? Was this project meant to record any albums or to be a long term project?

You never know where things are going to go but it was more of a temporary situation. We did some shows, we did a little bit of recording that has never been released but that was sort of a side-project that we never really followed up with. 

“I Wanna Cry” was included in the Stray Cats album “Rock Thearapy” but it was recorded by Phantom, Rocker & Slick. How did it end up on a Stray Cats record?

You know, “Rock Therapy” is a weird album in a sense. The band had broken up, I was doing Phantom Rocker & Slick stuff, Brian was doing other things… We basically owed the record company an album on a contract so that was the initial input to had us doing it because we were tied to the label and we wanted to move away from it. So that was a strange record in a sense. I like a lot of the stuff on it. What that record did was to bring the three of us back together and sort of restarted the band again but that was a quick record. I think we recorded it in about 2 weeks if I remember correctly in Los Angeles, and mainly covers. That one song, I don’t think Brian is on, that is Slick on guitar. 

From 1988 until 1992, the Stray Cats are back again. Which album are you more satisfied with?

“Choo Choo Hot Fish” was a really great record. I cannot say it is underrated but it wasn’t given the chance as if it had been on a major label at the time. It was on an independent company but I think that record is as strong as anything that we ever did. It is one of my favourites. Besides the first record, it might be the best one.

It is a very strong record, we had Dave Edmunds back and we recorded it in Chattanooga, TN which is a weird place to record an album. I was very happy with it.

For “Blast Off” you recorded a song called “Can’t Keep A Secret” to the memory of Roy Orbison. What happened to it?

I don’t know! I do remember that song! I honestly don’t remember but I can only assume that… I’d love to hear it again… but in terms of putting the record, in editing the whole thing, it just didn’t feel that there was a spot for it. There is not a lot of unreleased stuff that we had recorded over the years but there is for sure some. That one I haven’t heard in many many years.

Talking about unreleased stuff, could it be “Rock Around With Ollie Vee” around the “Built For Speed” sessions that was also recorded?

We recorded it in London with Bill Wyman. Bill Wyman wanted to produce us and we went in the studio with him somewhere in England. It is possible that we had recorded it a second time but I know we recorded it first with Bill Wyman. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to any of those sessions.

After the break up with the Cats in 1992 you started Big Blue, with Mike Eldred  and Henree DeBaun. The two albums you recorded with them, have a complete different direction from what we were used to listen to with the Cats, more blues, deeper lyrics in my opinion. However, nowadays and your last albums like “Night Train To Memphis” or “Racin’ The Devil” are more rockabilly oriented. Was this a conscious turn in your career or it just developed naturally?

Oh yeah! It just happened but certainly the Big Blue records are blues records and at that point it was what I was going for, what I really wanted to do. Blues has always been a love of mine. I played in blues bands as a teenager and it was the blues that directed me towards rockabilly. Playing James Cotton songs or Willie Dixon or Buddy Guy, Junior Wells… doing that kind of thing sort of led me down the road to rockabilly and then at that point I wanted to go back and do one or two blues records. I signed a record deal with a very cool label out of New Orleans called Black Top Records. That is a really very cool blues label that has been for many years and well, now they are gone.

Big Blue was a trio. We did suplement it a bit on the albums with some keyboards, horns and Scotty Moore on a couple of tracks. I always try to do something new so I guess those two blue records came up natuarlly. Some of the records I have done, it doesn’t really matter if it’s “No Cats” or “Racin’ The Devil”, some of them are more rockabilly… Americana… I hate even putting a label to it, a little bit more of country… For me it is just music that has a common thread to it, which is upright bass of course and the overall good vibe over to it… but for sure going to different directions. For instance “Night Train To Memphis” is mainly covers and it is straight Rock And Roll, rockabilly album. Some of the other albums are completely different and have nothing to do, like “The Cover Sessions” which is more country directed. But for sure all of them have the very same root. 

How did you get to meet Paul Rodgers and how did the mini tour in Texas come up? 

I have known Paul over the years… I am trying to remember how it happened! Paul at that time did a blues record so we just all figured this was just a nice way to get to do some dates together. 

Have you ever experienced any other accidents while on tour? 

Nothing too serious, luckily enough. I just saw that the Reverend Horton Heat tour bus exploded yesterday but nothing like every happened to me. 

Going back to the music issue, you have had the chance to record, as a guest artist, with many different people: Ringo Starr, Carl Perkins, Buddy Blue, Adrian Rasso or even Wanda Jackson amongst others. Of which artist, apart from Carl Perkins, do you have the fondest memories?

Hmm, hah! Well, you’ve cut that way! Carl Perkins I really do have such great memories, such a great guy. We really had a bond and it was fantastic to have that kind of friendship with him. He was a gem of a guy, an all-rounder musician, a great person… very sweet and smart guy.

Besides Carl… there were so many moments… but for sure with Brian and Jim, recordings that I am happy with. I do always to try to look forward and think about what’s coming next.

There is a film called “The Perfect Match” (1987) and you wrote a song, “Don’t Say If”, together with Slim Jim Phantom and a guy called Tim Torrance. Who is this man?

Yes!! He was a guitar player in Los Angeles who a friend of mine, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, introduced me to him. He was also an engineer as well as a guitar player. We recorded a couple of tracks with him. I don’t think we ever did a gig with him but for sure we did some studio things. You know, it was some cool stuff like the one you mentioned before, The Ruffnexx Trio, it was just one of those little projects, diversion at some point and it had its little thing and that was just the end of it.

Now that we are talking a bit about cinema, there was this series “Private Eye” in 1987 on which you happened to appear. How do you feel about being an actor?

Yes!! I haven’t seen it for many years, but Chris Isaak was on it. I think we cut a couple of songs, it was fun to act for a couple of days. 

A couple of years ago, The Katmen (Slim Jim Phantom & Darrel Higham) released their second album, “Cometh”, and some of the songs are co-written by you. Were you asked to write songs for that album in particular or you already had them?

Yes, I remember that. Slim Jim called me and said he was doing a record. Jim and I have been writing music since we were kids. Usually, we write together but separately. He sends me the lyrics and I just sit down with his lyrics and write the song.

And that was the case with those by The Katmen. I wrote 3 or 4 songs and I have a recording of me doing them. I don’t believe I have heard the finished versions of that album, but I do have those songs and a number of others that I have finished and I hope they end up in an album in the future. For a lot of years, I have been working on many different songs and it will be nice to sit down, to polish those songs off, put them all together and get them released.

Do you follow what Slim Jim and Brian Setzer are currently doing? Do you listen to their releases? Do you get a copy of their albums or do you send them a copy of your releases?

I generally try to listen to what’s out there but it is so easy on iTunes and stuff and just listen to the track and pull it off. That is changing in music these days and I miss the physical copies. I miss the days when there was an actual record or at least a CD but there is just less and less of that. The upside is that it is really easy to access it, but there is something about the physical thing that I miss. 

What can you tell me about this band together with, again, Slim Jim Phantom and Danny B Harvey called Swing Cats? Why did you guys never went on tour? 

That was really not a project I was involved at all beyond coming in to the studio one or two afternoons and play on. That was really like the Darrel Higham thing, Slim Jim would say “hey, we would love to have you on a couple of tracks”.

You have toured together with Scotty Moore, Elvis’s first guitar player. How was the experience and how did it happen?

Oh yeah! It was absolutely fantastic. He is one of the most influential guitar players in the history of music, probably Scotty Moore and Jimmy Hendrix have influenced more guitar players than anybody else. Amazing experience. He just had the touch. It is just how he plays but there is much more than that. It is the way he plays the instrument, how he picks it… there is just nobody like him!

Lately, you have been involved working with Jimmy Vivino on a series of shows called “Rumble & Twang”. How did it all start?  

Jimmy is, here in the States, a very well known guitar player. Very talented. He is the lead guitar on the “Conan O’Brien” TV show. He is a New York guy that I know and it was just for the fun of it. We started doing a couple of dates. It is a very fun side project and the idea was just to get together and have a good time. For me, to work with some different musicians like Al Kooper, Jim Heath of the Reverend Horton Heat or Earl Slick… so it is like a gathering.

Actually, how I met him was that I was invited to play in Woodstock, NY with Levon Helm. Levon was the drummer of The Band, the voice of The Band. He did a thing called “The Midnight Rumble” and he invited me up. We did a few songs by Levon, and Jimmy Vivino is a member of Levon Helm’s band. So this is how it all came together. One thing led to the other.

How about the radio show which is also called “Rumble & Twang”? 

One of these days I am going to put out a record called that way too, hahaha. It is a title I have been using for a lot different things for the last couple of years and I did really enjoy doing the show for a while. Currently, I am not doing it. Things are too hectic and busy for me at the moment. I loved doing it anyway. Just to play some songs that I liked, tell some stories… 

You have played with the Laguna Beach Orchestra. How did the idea come up? Were there any songs specially performed for the ocassion? 

They approached me about doing this and I love trying doing new things that I haven’t done before. So, that was the chance to play with a 70 piece orchestra. It was a blast! I think we did it a couple of times. There were very nice orchestrations to it. “Stray Cat Strut” worked really well. We did “True Love Ways” which also was great with the orchestration… “Memphis Freeze”…. It was one of those opportunities to stretch out and do something different and have some fun with it.

Lee, you have even produced a few albums, like “706 Union Avenue” by Mystery Train and also “La Rosa y La Cruz” by the Spanish band Los Rebeldes amongst some others. You have also played and recorded with a bunch of artists. You have been a Stray Cat (and still are) and as we have just said, played with a full orchestra behind you and even host your own radio show. In terms of music, is there something else that you would like to do, like for instance, being the manager of a band?

Some of the coolest things I have got to do was a guest spot on Broadway, “The Million Dollar Quartet”, for a couple of weeks. That show portrayed Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. It was something really unique. The whole thing was set up at Sun Studios and a lot of it was around the Carl Perkins story. That was for sure something very different.

What I am doing now beside some recording and touring, I am trying to put up a show with more of a story telling aspect to it, where I tell my story and the story of Stray Cats in a concert setting, with of course the performance but also with some video screens. That is really my large project that is underway and that I am developing now. I am hoping to have that ready really by the end of this year and show it in 2017.

I have a couple of questions that my eldest brother Igor Paskual sent over. My eldest brother is the responsible that I got into music. He’s always admired your sound and he says that you remind him of Bill Black of the Elvis’s band in the 50s. Could you tell us which equipment and pick ups do you use?

I got a couple of different set-ups and exchanged over the years. Early on, I used exclusively steel strings on the bass and in order to get a good sound with steel strings I felt that I needed to use magnetic pick ups.  You know, like pick ups that you would use on a magnetic bass and that would give a lot of sound and tone and bass low frequency. But there wouldn’t be enough of the slap so I would attach another pick and run it through two channels of the amp, almost like stereo, and only get the high end of that to get the percussion aspect of that and blend them. And that to me is more like a rock and roll tone that I used on occasions and I used all the time on the early records but over the years I have moved away from that and it is because the technology has got better.

I have been playing many basses of mine with gut strings, the traditional string, simply because pick ups have got better . There are some great pick ups from a Danish company called Planet Wing, a small company, and with gut strings it got fantastic lows and highs. It doesn’t feedback. In the old days, I played steel strings all the time because I could get loud enough without feedback and now it seems that the problem has been beaten so feedback is not the issue that once was in an upright bass if I use this pick ups, so it has changed. I think I probably have a more traditional sound, tone now that I did 30 years ago.

* Note: if an instrument feedbacks, it means that when the instrument is close to the amplifier or microphone, it doesn’t give any sound out of it, there is no squeaking sound. (Thanks, Rajko!)

My brother would also like to know which is the band or the artist that has influenced you the most, besides Carl Perkins. 

Different people at different times. Willie Dixon for sure, Carl Perkins for sure… later in my career, John Forgerty is a huge influence. I am a huge Bob Dylan fan as well. It has diversed over the years. Rockpile too.

Now that we have just talked about sound, equipment and so on, do you follow the current bass scene? Do you check who the new bass players are or do you get new ideas from people like Djordje Stijepovic (Drake Bell), Jimmy Sutton (JD McPherson, Deke Dickerson) or Johnny Bowler (Guana Batz, Buzz Campbell) ?

There are very good players but not really. I feel that I have always done things my way and I never really thought about other players really besides Willie Dixon and a jazz guy called Jay Brown. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and said “what is that that they are doing there?”. I don’t really spend much time listening to other upright bass players. 

Lee, as you know, you are calling Sweden but I come from north Spain, close to Gijón where you have had the opportunity to play on a few occassions. What memories do you have from your visits to Spain? And from Sweden? 

I can’t even pick out one or two. There were so many good memories and great shows and fans. I really appreciate the support out there. 

In a few days, we will have you at the “Crazy Rockabilly Cruise” here in Sweden. What can the fans expect from your show? What will your show consist on? 

I am bringing Buzz Campbell on guitar and Jimmy Sage on drums and we are doing it as a real traditional rockabilly trio. So that is what I am actually thinking this week, putting together that set list and thinking about what I am going to play and what is the strongest stuff to do in that kind of a trio format. I haven’t done the trio in a while, so I am really looking forward to it. 

What do you enjoy doing when you are not on tour? Do you have any particular hobby outside the music?

Spend time with my kids, they are in their mid 20s and my wife and I travel a lot, spend a lot of time together. That’s really it.

My final question I guess it’s quite obvious: what are your plans for the near future? 

New album for sure! And the real focus is working on this new concept of performance. I am spending a lot of time crafting that show and thinking about what stories I want to tell. 

Finally, Lee, I would like to thank you again for spending some time asnwering my questions for the Stray Cats Collector’s website. Thank you very very much for your time and attention.

Lee: Well, no, no! Thank you, Jon! It has been a pleasure!