For The Stray Cats, their current comeback is nearly as unexpected as their initial rise from Massapequa teenagers to international rock stars 40 years ago.
Singer/guitarist Brian Setzer, drummer Slim Jim Phantom and bassist Lee Rocker will release “40” (Surfdog/BMG), their first new album in 26 years, on Friday, May 24. Next month, they will kick off a tour that includes their first major American run in 10 years, including a stop at The Rooftop at Pier 17 at South Street Seaport in Manhattan. But this wasn’t some multiyear plan cooked up some marketing exec. This reunion was all based on the vibe.
“We didn't really have to sell it too hard,” says Phantom, calling from his home in Los Angeles. “We said we wanted to play and that came into fruition pretty quickly. Then, we wanted to make a record and that came together very quickly. There was no resistance — from the industry or from the guys. Everyone wanted to do it. I think it's the right time.”
“Somehow,” Phantom adds with a laugh. “We get lucky with the timing every 40 years or so.”
The current Stray Cats reunion began last year, when the band decided to play the annual Viva Las Vegas festival. “It was a celebration of all things rockabilly — the fashion and the attitude of the whole thing — and there was a big car show involved with it,” Phantom says. “So it was all the things that we liked and it was all young people because old guys aren't going to make a trek to Las Vegas and standing in some field just to look at a band. The rockabillies — they tend to go in all the way. It's not just going to a gig. Anyone who's into this music and at a Stray Cats show, they've chosen it as a life.”
The band was moved by seeing so many young people from all over the world. “There were hundreds of Japanese guys and gals, with the Japanese flag with a Stray Cats head in the middle of it,” Phantom says. “There was a Brazilian contingency. It was a bit like the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, but they were all rockabillies. It had an impact on us all … We've been around for awhile, but it all kinda hit the three of us a little bit at the same time. We kinda had an impact on the world that was a little bit more than just somebody who had a hit record in the ‘80s and got lucky on MTV. During the set, we were getting this vibe between us, like, ‘Wow, we really have a continuing influence.’ That really kind of lit the fuse.”
Following the Vegas show and a few others, the band decided to stay in closer touch. The group chat started with funny pictures, but quickly turned into songs. “Brian got in touch and said, ‘I've been writing some songs and I think they are right up our alley’,” Phantom recalls. “So he would send the songs over and I immediately heard how I thought the drums should go and Lee felt the same on the bass.”
Within a month, they went into Blackbird Studios in Nashville to record with producer Peter Collins, of Rush and Bon Jovi fame. “That was like the old days when we started the band,” Phantom says. “We got to this renewed love of rockabilly.”
And it shows on “40.” The first single “Cat Fight (Over a Dog Like Me)” has a “Runaway Boys” vibe. “Rock It Off” could be the latest rockabilly anthem in the same vein as “Rock This Town.”
“You have to understand how unique the Stray Cats are,” Setzer says in a behind-the-scenes video. “It’s me playing an old hollow-body guitar, Slim Jim playing two or three drums, and Lee Rocker slapping a stand-up acoustic bass. I get to write new songs and then play them with my buddies. Somehow, we created a new and exciting sound with this simple idea.”
The initial hope for the album was a modest one. “The hope for the whole thing was so we would play a few less old songs,” Phantom says. “Brian said, ‘I don't want to play, ‘I Fought the Law.’’ We kind of needed to replace a few of the old cover songs that we did a million times. No one likes the old songs any less, but it's a way to put new songs in the set and make it fresh to do a gig … To go out and just play the same set from 10 years ago? Nobody wants that.”
Phantom says they were hoping a handful of the “40” songs would be strong enough to play in the set. “It really just turned out to be a little bit more than we thought it was going to be,” he says. “I think Brian keeps in mind what everyone's strengths are. There's one track that I was very flattered to hear he wrote for me called “Three Times a Charm” and it was very much him imagining me doing the thing like Gene Vincent had Dickie Harrell do, where the drums answer the singing and part of the riff is the drum part.
“I think the one that just came out, ‘Rock It Off,’ is another one,” Phantom continues. “On that one, I remember I was walking down the driveway and he called and he was playing it for me over the phone — just him and the guitar. I liked the riff right away. It reminded me of like an Eddie Cochran song, but brand-new. I couldn't quite put my finger on which one, which is the beauty of it. The trick of these kinds of songs is to make it different enough, but familiar at the same time … And that's where he really nailed it on this record. On that song in particular, I just remember I couldn't wait to play it.”
Phantom says The Stray Cats are still getting used to the idea that the band is now being played on the same classic rock stations he listened to when he was growing up on Long Island.
“You want to be classic, but in the moment, I just wanted to play that music and somehow make a living at it,” he says. “I think if the Stray Cats can do that to someone else, it's kind of passing the torch a little bit. When you're 19 years old, you would never think you would influence someone 19 years old a hundred years from now. You can't really think of that way. I couldn't.
“Now, we're the new Carl Perkins,” he continues. “You couldn't have set out to do that, but I'm very proud of that — the idea that you can be kind of classic and that maybe someone will listen to that, some kid who picks the alternative, which is what we did.”
WHO Stray Cats
WHEN|WHERE 7 p.m. Aug. 6, The Rooftop at Pier 17, 89 South St., Manhattan
INFO $68; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
STRAY CATS STRUT
The main reason it’s been 26 years between albums from the Stray Cats is that all three members have been busy with their own solo projects. Here’s a look at what they have been up to:
BRIAN SETZER The Stray Cats’ singer/guitarist went solo with 1986’s “The Knife Feels Like Justice.” In 1994, he kicked off another chapter of his career with The Brian Setzer Orchestra, which helped launch another revival of swing music. Setzer will also tour this summer with Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Riot, a quartet that will play songs from throughout his career on a summer tour that includes a stop at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Aug. 10.
SLIM JIM PHANTOM The Stray Cats’ drummer has his own band, the Slim Jim Phantom Trio, that continues to tour. He also hosts the weekly show “Slim Jim Phantom’s Rockabilly Rave Up” on SiriusXM’s Underground Garage channel from Steven Van Zandt.
LEE ROCKER The Stray Cats’ bassist led his own band, Lee Rocker & Big Blue in the ‘90s before going solo, with his most recent album “The Low Road” released last year. He has also done some theater work, playing Carl Perkins’ brother, Jay, in the Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” — GLENN GAMBOA