Interview: Brian Setzer talks Carl Perkins, Glen Campbell and more before his Clearwater holiday extravaganza

His Orchestra plays Ruth Eckerd Hall on November 28.

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click to enlarge Brian Setzer, who plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on November 28, 2017. - Publicity Photo
Publicity Photo
Brian Setzer, who plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on November 28, 2017.

Musically, there’s not a whole lot Brian Setzer hasn’t accomplished. The Massapequa, New York native has covered lots of musical ground in his long and illustrious career. A fine crooner, one of the best and most dynamic guitar slingers out there and hell of a nice guy, Setzer has been setting concert stages ablaze singe his early 1980s rockabilly band The Stray Cats introduced the infectious country-meets-rock and roll genre that rose to prominence in the 1950s and became religion to a whole new generation of kids.

Having since embarked on a wickedly successful solo career that’s found him mastering and reviving swing music and big band-styled rock and roll, the red hot guitarist, now 58, shows no signs of slowing down. Currently in the throes of another one of his record-breaking Christmas tours with his multi-piece big band, I had the chance to chat with the mighty Setzer just as rehearsals for his highly anticipated holiday tour were underway.

Read our Q&A, and get more information on the show below.

Brian Setzer Orchestra w/Texas Gentleman
Tue. Nov. 28, 7:30 p.m. $52.75 & up.
Ruth Eckerd Hall, 111 N. McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater.
More info:

So the Brian Setzer Orchestra just celebrated 25 years together recently. Tell me what that means to you? Is this something that you thought would go on for this long?
Yeah! (laughs) That’s like keeping the biggest, most expensive car you ever owned rolling on the highway for 25 years. I don’t know how I did it, really. People love the big kind of bucks trends and it just keeps rolling down the highway!

From your perspective, what do you think people love about it so much? What do you personally think draws so many people to that sound and what you’re doing?

It’s so unique…and it’s so musical. It’s the only one out there, it really is. I’m not saying we’re the only big band that plays but, what we do with it, mixing rock and roll with my guitar into that big band sound, it’s a very powerful, unique sound. Once people hear it, I mean I’ve got people who’ve been to every show we’ve done, especially with the Christmas shows for the past fifteen years, they come out every year to see it.

Well, I sure love it too. This is the 14th tour you’re doing in this style, is that right?

Fourteenth Christmas tour! Yeah!

That’s amazing…

Yes, it is!

How do you keep it fresh? How do you approach it and what do you add to it every year to keep it evolving?

You gotta change some songs up, and you know, it’s hard to drop songs at this point because you know you can’t drop songs that are hit records that people want to hear and there are some that I love to play that I don’t want to drop so I have to think of some good, unique ideas to put in there. This year, I know, I want to do a little something for (recently deceased) Glen Campbell so I’ve arranged a couple of songs. I also want to do a little bit of (also recently passed) Chuck Berry! Not to make it a tribute tour but I wanna do a little Chuck Berry thing in my trio set where I break it down and play a little rockabilly so there’s two ideas I wanna go with. And then we change the set up too, you know the backdrops, the outfits, the lighting, so that keeps it unique so people wanna see it every year.


So you give people something new and something to look forward to every time you come around on one of these types of tours...

Yeah, it’s for me as well…I enjoy changing it up.

What’s your personal appeal to Christmas music? What’s your motivation to want to do this type of show? What turns you on about it?

It doesn’t really matter, to be honest with you. First of all, we’re the only band that’s taken the holidays and…you know, people really want to go out and hear something and they want to celebrate over Christmas and there’s not a whole lot to go see that’s in the rock and roll genre. There’s., you know…I don’t know what there is….so for me it was a natural to take it out with this band. But the songs are so well written. It’s actually a really a tough challenge to take one of those old songs and make it rock…I’m trying to think of an example…”Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” or something like that when you add a big band to it. Or “The Christmas Song,” the Nat “King” Cole song, it’s a classic, it’s a standard. It’s already a great song it’s just, for us, it’s a matter of taking that and making it rock a little bit

It’s interesting to hear you say that because it seems like you’ve really filled a niche for rock and roll-inspired Christmas music

Yeah, it’s just kind of it kept growing every year but then again, I don’t sit in any box either;  I’m the crazy guy with the big orange guitar so, why not put an 18-piece band together and drag it around the country! (laughs)

And it’s really cool because you’ve revitalized a lot of genres throughout your career; you brought rockabilly to a lot of kids who didn’t even know what it was…you revived swing music for a new generation and you’ve done the same with cool Christmas music. Is that because it’s music you love? Or because you felt like it needed to be heard again? What was it that made you want to revisit those styles of music?

Well, the rockabilly thing is me at its core; that is something that rings all the bells for me and…what’s the word for it…it’s like, other people have that same thing with the blues…it’s like it’s a primal thing…you can feel it just checks all the boxes. So for me to play that kind of music was a given. I don’t know why it chose me…but it did. So my challenge always was to take this and not to just retread it just play it the way they did, but to make something new out of it. It’s kind of like taking an old car you see and people might see it as, “Why’d you buy that old rust bucket?” and then after a year, when you fix it up and you take it out then people say, “I can’t believe how beautiful that is!” (laughs)

So you’ve done The Stray Cats, you’ve done solo stuff, you’ve done the Rockabilly Riot and now there’s the orchestra; do you incorporate all of that stuff into what you do in the Christmas shows? I know it’s got to be hard to narrow down a set list but do you try to represent all those eras from your career in these performances?

I don’t really have to try. It’s funny. This is a big band but it’s not necessarily…I mean, you’re not gonna come out and hear Glenn Miller. This is a big band where I get to play anything I want! It changes all the time with whatever I feel like playing;  we can take any kind of music and play it in this band. But yeah, absolutely, I play some Stray Cats songs that I’ve reworked, I’ve gotta do some reworking of Christmas classics, and there’s songs in general that I just  feel like playing. Like this year I wanna do the Glen Campbell thing. I wanna choose a couple of songs of his and arrange them with the big band and I guarantee you’ve never heard them like this it won’t be the way Glen did them, it’ll be the way we do them.


You’ve recently put out Rockin’ Rudolph” another Christmas album but can fans expect maybe another straight up big band or rockabilly album from you in the near future after this tour?

Well, it all comes down to whatever I’m writing and I can’t really, I don’t guide that… it’s the craziest thing. Songwriting is a little gift you get I think and whatever comes down to ya, and from wherever it comes, is what happens and I’ve got five or things written and I don’t know where it’s gonna wind up… something else will happen. It’ll come but I don’t know where I don’t know where it's gonna land.

It’s a great mystery, it sounds like

It’s beautiful!

What would you say to Brian Setzer fans who maybe have never come to check out one of your Christmas shows? What can they expect?

I think what you’re gonna see is a pretty unique band. This isn’t a band with a couple guitars, you know, that plays out every night. This is a 19-piece big band so basically, what you’re gonna see are big-band arrangements of some Christmas classics, of some of my Stray Cats songs and other songs you might have heard. And if you’re familiar with the way I play guitar, that kind of leads the whole band. I guess it’s kind of hard to explain. You really just have to come see it!

Do you have any personal favorite Christmas songs or albums that you always kind of fall back that you personally like to listen to yourself?

The album we had around when I was growing up that we had on every Christmas was the Elvis Christmas Album. I think that’s my favorite one. We had an Elvis house so that’s the one I had growing up

Is that you got into rockabilly music? Maybe from your parents or hearing it through some folks older than yourself? When did you know that rockabilly was your true calling?

When I first heard that music it was because I had three distinct records when I was growing up. My dad discovered them because he was in the service overseas and he brought back three records and I remembered him saying, about the guys he was in a platoon with: “These guys from the south and they liked this kind of music and I like it too,” and it was Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. So I had those three records around the house and I remember thinking, “Boy, I really like this,” and then when I heard The Beatles’ and the Rolling Stones’ first records, where they were doing (Carl Perkins’) “Honey, Don’t,” and things like that I said, “Wow! This is cool! They’re covering Carl Perkins” and I was surprised to hear that so that was really the first time, when I was a young kid, that this music really kind of grabbed me.

Well, me and so many others are certainly glad you did…you brought it to a whole new level. We’re looking forward to your return to the area. There are lots of people who are anxiously awaiting this show and have been for a while.

Well, it’s been a long time so we’re happy to be coming back!

About The Author

Gabe Echazabal

I was born on a Sunday Morning.I soon received The Gift of loving music.Through music, I Found A Reason for living.It was when I discovered rock and roll that I Was Beginning To See The Light.Because through music, I'm Set Free.It's always helped me keep my Head Held High.When I started dancing to that fine, fine...
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