In a sense, Brian Setzer’s 23-song Rockabilly Riot: Vol. 1: A Tribute to Sun Records was a piece of cake—the album was mastered a mere three weeks after the first day of recording, which went down at the Castle, a converted house in Franklin, Tenn., just south of Nashville. This record was not fussed over. “It’s rockabilly, man,” says Setzer. “It’s supposed to be raw, and it’s more about feel.”
In other ways, though, Rockabilly Riot was the most intensive undertaking of the veteran artist’s career, even more intricate than his five big-band albums with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Although Setzer’s association with rockabilly goes all the way back to his beginnings with the Stray Cats, and even though he’s covered songs associated with the arcane idiom over the years, until he decided to revisit the trailblazing work turned out by of Memphis’ Sun Records, Setzer had never closely examined the nuances of the original records. So he threw himself into his “homework,” as he calls it, going through every rockabilly track that came out of Sam Phillips’ label between 1954 and ’57, as well as digging through the Sun vaults in search of undiscovered treasures.
Further, once he’d selected the 23 songs for the record, Setzer, along with his longtime drummer Bernie Dresel and slap-bass specialist Mark Winchester (who played on 2001’s Ignition) scrutinized every detail of the half-century-old recordings, making discoveries along the way.
For example, “Those drum parts really complemented the vocals, adding a lot of excitement to them, and that’s something drummers don’t do now,” Setzer explains. “Like, modern drummers would never play into the next verse, but these guys did—it was wild. Bernie was pretty amazed at what they were doing on those records, ’cause they were inventing their own new style. We almost had to unlearn a lot of stuff.”
For Setzer, the biggest realization was that he was missing an integral piece of the puzzle. “They always had a piano as well as a guitar,” he points out, “and of all the neo-rockabilly bands who came along in the ’80s—I can’t think of one that had a piano. I guess it’s because they were trying to copy the Stray Cats. So I needed to find a good piano player, and this cat, Kevin McKendree, fell into my lap. He sent us a tape; I listened to it and said, ‘This is the guy. Where does he live?’ It turns out he lives four houses away from the Castle. Mark told me, ‘I love playing rockabilly; I’m not talkin’ the honky-tonk or the boogie-woogie.’ He knew where to leave the holes.”
Originally, Setzer wanted to cut the record in Memphis, for obvious reasons, but that idea turned out to be unrealistic. “Sun isn’t really a studio anymore,” he points out. “It’s more like a museum, with guided tours. Also, if we needed particular old microphones and guitar amps, Nashville would be a lot easier to find stuff. But I wanted to get as close as possible—I wanted to get the vibe.”
When he got to the Castle, Setzer was delighted to discover that it was a tracking room with a view—a rarity in professional recording studios. “It was so good to look out over the rolling landscape while we worked,” he says. “It definitely made a difference. I don’t think I could’ve made this record in L.A.” The studio had another benefit, as well: “We got it for a whole week for what it would’ve cost to book one day in L.A. Plus the people were very friendly.”
As they were setting up, co-producer David Darling noticed an old cistern in the backyard. When he checked it out and discovered it was dry, Darling wasted no time running a cord out of the control room window and mic-ing it up. Voila—a real, live echo chamber. They made good use of that cistern during the sessions, adjusting the amount of reverb from track to track in order to bring some variety to the strict conventions of the idiom.
Leave the Pro Tools in the Shed
Setzer was committed to honoring the formal requirements in his guitar performances. “I wanted to let my own playing come through, just kinda keep it more basic, to-the-bone rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “But some of those original riffs were so good that I had to play them. You can’t just give it an entirely new part—the whole idea is to play it like that.”
Naturally, the quartet played live—and in close proximity—on the basic tracks, with Setzer heightening the vibe through his body language. Later, he overdubbed the vocals and acoustic guitar. The band averaged three or four tracks a day during the week and a half of recording, listening to the original record and brainstorming, playing the song themselves three or four times and then rolling tape. You didn’t expect this record to be made on Pro Tools, did you? “The only times we didn’t nail a take, it was always my fault; it was never the band’s,” Setzer says, laughing. “I mean, they nailed it.”
In creating a scrupulously retro recording like this one, “You want to capture all those human elements that were on those records in the ’50s, but you wanna dust it off a little,” Setzer explains. “So we made it just a little more hi-? in the mixing technique. With what I was trying to achieve, we didn’t really need to add anything to it. I wanted to keep it what it was: 23 songs that most people have never heard, and you get it all on one record. That was the idea. I hope some guy who’s 18 will go, ‘Huh,’ and buy it. ’Cause it’s worth it.”
The primitive purity of the sessions made a deep impression on Setzer, who puts the Rockabilly Riot project right up there with the Stray Cats in London and his first recording with the big band in his bag of studio memories. “It was just classic: great songs and great players, right on the border of country and rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “As you can tell, I’m really excited about it.”